A missed opportunity. That’s what it felt like.
Last Wednesday evening I went to the Election Hustings in the Streatham Parliamentary Constituency. It was hosted by Streatham Baptist on behalf of the organisation ‘Love Streatham’. I was thrilled that they’d decided to host the event and I appreciated the chance to get near to the candidates and to hear what they had to say. It was a gilt edged opportunity to speak face to face with the Parliamentary candidates about the issues that concern us as Christians. But we dropped the ball.
The four main candidates had pitched up.
- Chris Nicholson, Liberal Democrat
- Rahoul Bhansali, Conservative
- Rebecca Findlay, Green Party
- Chuka Umanna, Labour
One of them was late. They didn’t let on which one. Whilst we waited for them to arrive it left me thinking, should I vote for someone who can’t be trusted to pitch up on time? I put that to one side once things got under way.
There were eight questions from the floor in the 90 minute meeting. Three of them could have come straight out of the interview section (if there is one) of Hello Magazine. I’m all for an enjoyable warm up. But this was ridiculous. We had one question asking what prayer they’d like to see God answer for Streatham. Good to have a Christian shape to the evening. We had one on the candidates own assessment of their strengths and weaknesses, which I guess was fair enough. And we had one on one thing that they’d done in the last month outside politics of which they felt proud. On their own they would have made interesting introductory questions. But this is a nation facing big decisions about environmental issues, foreign policy, religious tolerance and the national debt and we wanted to know what they liked on their toast!
The other questions had a little more substance.
- What strategies have you got to tackle the 20% of children that live in poverty?
- Do you think that the 24 week limit for abortion should be reduced? It’s like asking ‘should we kill a few less babies than we are the moment?’ It doesn’t really help us find out their view on abortion, which is what I need to know.
- If the Equality Bill is reintroduced to Parliament will you remove the Waddington Amendment? This was too specific and the candidates got lost in the detail. It was a shame because I’m right with the questionner on this one. But we need a more general ‘will your preserve religious liberty?’ sort of a question with the possibility of follow up.
- Do you think that petrol price increases should be borne by the consumer? Rather unsurprisingly the people voted ‘no’.
- What will you do to deal with gang crime? Some good points were made by Chuka Umanna about absence of family and sense of identity.
The answers tended to be long and the light touch from the Hustings Chair didn’t help with that. It would have been good to have had more questions and robust interaction with the floor.
I submitted a question but it wasn’t asked. I like to think it had substance! I think it’s the issue that’ll most trouble evangelicals in the next Parliament. I phrased it like this ‘What guarantee can you give that in the next Parliament civil liberty will not be further eroded so that Christians can be investigated and prosecuted for holding to and teaching in a public context the orthodox Christian position?’ This is the issue that most concerns me going forward. Are Christians going to be prosecuted for publicly disagreeing with the mainstream view?
After the end of the formal proceedings I managed to chat to Chris Nicholson. I like him. He’s an impressive character. Anyone who adopts four siblings from social care and brings them up with his wife is worthy of great respect. That’s not something that I think that I could manage. But he has, and that’s impressive. But I wanted to talk to him about policy because that’s what concerns me most about the Liberal Democrats. In the past their manifesto promiises have scared me. I didn’t like where they’re going and I didn’t like how they want to get there. But he’s made me revisit them as an option.
I picked up on the question about Lord Waddington’s free speech amendment in the Equality Bill. Labour has apparently said that they’ll get rid of it. That makes me nervous. I want to live in a society where people are free to say what others may find offensive otherwise we end up in a tyrannical world where dissent from the majority is outlawed. Without legal protection on free speech it’s quite possible that I could be investigated and prosecuted for teaching traditional Christian views in a public context. Christian Concern for our Nation and The Christian Institute frequently highlight cases where it is becoming normal for the Police to instigate criminal proceedings against people who have ‘trespassed’ what’s deemed to be acceptable behaviour.
I pushed him further. I asked him ‘Will you defend my right to believe and teach traditional Christian truth even if I cause offence?’ He wouldn’t give me a cast iron reassurance. He was concerned that I wouldn’t discriminate in the provision of goods and services. But that’s already law. This is going to bite if we evangelicals want to retain our prophetic voice on moral issues, perhaps especially though not exclusively in the area of sexual ethics. If we just want to keep quiet and our heads down we’l be alright. But if we love others enough to suggest that what they’re doing is destructive and against God’s will then it’d be nice to have some legal protection!
Streatham is effectively a two horse race. It’s Labour or the Liberal Democrats here. That was reinforced by the performance of the Conservative candidate, who was hugely disappointing and, for me, the admission by Rebecca Findlay that she’s the Press and Campaigns Manager of the Family Planning Association. They don’t get much more pro-choice than that and I’m not sure that I could vote for a pro-choice candidate. The questions didn’t really help me make up my mind. I’m left with two viable options; Chris Nicholson and Chuka Umanna. I need to e-mail them my questions. And I need to know where Chuka stands on abortion.