A week on from the General Election and we’re all still adjusting to the new and unexpected reality of a majority Conservative Government. What are our sources of hope and optimism, and what have we to offer to the millions of ordinary people even now struggling to make ends meet?
What are we to make of the £12 billion cuts to benefits?
First, the bad news. Whatever your view on the Election result itself, anyone with an interest in tackling poverty must surely be concerned at the new Government’s commitment to cut a further £12 billion from the benefits budget. Given that pensions are explicitly excluded, this amounts to a cut of roughly ten percent of the budget for working age households – or, as the Lib Dems calculated, a cut of £1,500 a year from the incomes of eight million families.
How will the Government make these cuts? Do they even intend to do so? Which benefits will be cut? Who will be affected and who spared? The problem at the moment is that no one knows. Not even, apparently, the Government itself.
In spite of intense pressure to spell out how they would make such dramatic cuts, the Prime Minister refused to give any details. And Iain Duncan Smith, now reinstalled as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, explicitly stated that no decisions have yet been made as to where the cuts will fall.
Troublingly, since last Thursday, there has been press speculation that the Conservatives never actually expected that they would have to make £12 billion of cuts. As Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie argues in the Times today:
“If the Tories got back into No 10 they expected to trade away most of the “right-wing” policies in coalition negotiations. I’m particularly thinking of the housing association right-to-buy, £12 billion of welfare cuts, slashing of inheritance tax and the introduction of a British Bill of Rights. They’re now stuck with them.”
Whither One Nation Conservatism?
On a more optimistic note, since the Election, the Prime Minister has sought to re-assert his commitment to One Nation and Compassionate Conservatism. According to Fraser Nelson of the Spectator:
“One Nation Toryism now whispers: ‘Finish Universal Credit! Tear up the old welfare system that trapped so many! Make sure work pays far more for those at the bottom’. One Nation Toryism now means thinking urgently about why so many have been left behind by this economic recovery, and what can be done for them.”
But not a mention from Fraser as to how that can be squared with loping ten percent of the benefits budget – which props up the incomes of people in low paid work, just as much as those with no work.
Tim Montgomerie, co-founder amongst other things of the Centre for Social Justice – and a powerful advocate of Compassionate Conservatism – argues that David Cameron is to become a truly one nation prime minister he will also have to exercise the freedom given to him by virtue of the fact that he has fought his last general election:
“I hope he exercises it on behalf of the unpropertied and those famous hard-working families who can’t afford further cuts to their benefits. But would the parliamentary Tory party let him? I hope we’ll get the chance to find out.”
Many of us are scared
In the meantime, many are scared at the prospects of a Conservative government, now unfettered by the ‘moderating influence’ of a centre-ground coalition partner. As Rev Mike Walsh has powerfully articulated, in his open letter to the Prime Minister (now shared by more than 100,000 people on social media):
“Many of us are scared. Scared of what your policies will do to our communities and families. Scared of what will happen to our health service and our schools. Scared of losing our family homes for the sake of a few quid saving from the bedroom tax, or not being able to heat our home and have enough left to buy food.
I don’t disagree with you that the best way out of poverty is to work, nor do I think that people should get something for nothing and expect the tax-payer to support people indefinitely if they are able to work. Who would think that that was ok and fair?
But your party’s policies on these issues, couched in terms of reducing the deficit and balancing the books, don’t seem to take into account the social and human cost of such actions.”
So where can we find sources of hope in spite of present difficulties?
What are the hopes, visions and narratives which will connect and inspire people? What stories do we need to tell to convince people that another world is possible, and that they can play a part in bringing it about?
Hearing the cry of the poor: A community of faith?
Can we find hope as a community of faith, committed to living out God’s bias to the Poor? The narratives of liberation theology, biblically rooted (as in the Poverty and Social Justice Bible): As a Christian it is right, and our duty, to speak up for the poorest and most vulnerable – whether or not this changes anything. Prophetic naming of injustice is itself an act of faith and discipleship.
These are the values embodied and embedded in what Church Action on Poverty is and what it does – but are shared much more widely amongst the community of faith that is the Church. In a society which has seemingly lost its moral compass, can we become be a beacon for an alternative set of values?
Speaking truth to power: A community of witness?
Can we find hope as a community of witness? Can we offer a voice to those who are normally voiceless and marginalised: That this is both an intrinsically valuable thing in itself, and a challenge both to our ‘normal’ understanding of the world and of powerholders in church and wider society.
Speaking truth to power: Both in the sense of giving a voice to people in poverty, and through campaigns, challenging politicians to think and act differently. Even if no policy change is achieved, this ‘act of witness’ is intrinsically valuable.
In some ways, the more these values are resisted, the stronger the appeal becomes. To be bound together by presenting a counter-cultural challenge to the powers of the world is a strong bonding force. Prophetic statements and actions, can be powerful means of rallying people to a cause – ‘huddling together’ when the world appears to be against you. Many religious communities have long traditions of surviving periods of exile/persecution through collective acts of solidarity/resistance.
Change Agents: A community of change?
But can we inspire hope that real change is possible? Are we brave enough to offer an invitation to become part of an inspired and inspiring community of people, gathered together and resourced, to bring about positive change in our own churches, communities and more widely, to achieve transformational change at personal, local and national levels?
What would it take for Church Action on Poverty – or, indeed, the Church in its widest sense – to become not just a community of faith, witness and solidarity, but a community of change agents? A community which seeks to embody the change we want to bring about? A community which offers hope and inspiration to its members, the church and the wider community?
For change to come, it is first us that we need to change. Can we ‘be the change’ we want to bring about? Can we overcome the ‘learned powerlessness’ which would have us believe deep down that change isn’t possible? Or that, even if change is possible, it is because of the actions of someone else – but not mine.
Recovering prophetic imagination
As times get harder, do we have a vision of developing a much stronger identity as a community of faith and witness which is consciously counter-cultural to the prevailing spirit of individualism and consumerism? Is there a way of doing this which at the same time enlists the middle class to the cause of tackling poverty and inequality?
In the face of a many reasons for pessimistic, is this the time to reengage with the task of ‘prophetic imagination’? Can we more consciously and explicitly draw on the traditions of faith and the sources of inspiration to create and live out new narratives of hope and optimism in spite of present difficulties?
Can we live up to the challenge of living and acting as if another world is possible?