My Premier colleagues know that Wednesday is not my favourite day of the week. On that day when Parliament is sitting I have to attend and report on Prime Minister’s Questions. This event brings out the worst in many MPs and Messrs Cameron and Miliband in particular.
Egged on by their jeering supporters, each tries to make the other look totally incompetent and inadequate for the offices they occupy. Only rarely, as when a tragedy has occurred, do they behave like statesmen. Their defenders will argue that they have to do this to make the voters aware of their policy differences. Thus, PMQ’s become a sort of mini-election campaign.
It may seem naïve to criticise this behaviour if one accepts the need for party politics. If MPs were independents with little or no party discipline, as they once were, it would be difficult to attribute credit or blame for government policies at election time. In that sense parties play an important role in a democracy. On the other hand the blame game they play often confuses issues and obscures the fact that on many of them they are not as far apart as they imply. So, is there a different way of doing politics?
In a new book the American Christian, Jim Wallis, makes a strong case for politicians working together to address the underlying causes of the nation’s problems, to identify the common ground between them and work for the common good rather than sectional interests. Thus, for example, the common ground on welfare policy is surely focused on enabling those who are able to work to do so and concentrating benefit support only on those who are genuinely unable to hold down a job, for health, disability and family responsibility reasons. That makes managing the economy in a way that creates sustainable jobs, and organising schooling to equip everyone with appropriate skills, key policy objectives. Anyone who can but will not work is effectively opting out of active citizenship and become ineligible for welfare support.
This is not how the current welfare reform debate is being conducted. As Wallis make clear, the Christian basis for making the pursuit of the common good the best way to do politics is the biblical ethic of loving one’s neighbour ‘as yourself’.[i] This, sadly, has little currency in Britain’s increasingly individualistic culture. Archbishop Justin Welby’s campaign to put Wonga and other lenders charging high interest rates for pay day loans out of business by creating non-profit making credit unions in every parish, offers a brilliant example of how practically to love one’s neediest neighbours. Party membership is shrinking and few politicians are highly respected. That is bad for democracy and unfair to MPs who work hard for their constituents. Working for the common good involves both the personal responsibility important to Conservatives and the social responsibility important to Labour. We need the best of both not one or the other.
[i] Matthew 19.19; Exodus 20:12-16; Deut. 5:16-20; Lev. 19-18