Labour leadership candidates compete for Christian support

By staff writers
July 6, 2010

All five candidates for the Labour leadership have placed a strong emphasis on “values” while pitching for Christian support. Speaking at a hustings run by the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM), they clashed over poverty, prisons, migration and nuclear weapons.

The candidates – Diane Abbott, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham, David Miliband and Ed Miliband – all sought to present themselves as motivated by firm convictions. The event was held in Methodist Central Hall in Westminster yesterday evening (5 July).

David Miliband explained, “I'm not a religious person but actually I'm a person of faith. I have faith in people”. He said the Labour Party can learn from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and stressed the importance of the “notion of right relationship”.

His brother Ed Miliband likewise said he had learnt “not a religious faith but a simple faith” that “if you saw an injustice then you had to do something about it”. Criticising the language of the Blair-Brown era, he said, “We need to reclaim those words – love, compassion, caring”.

Andy Burnham, a Roman Catholic, emphasised the Christian origins of his politics, insisting several times that “the basic tenets of the Labour Party and socialism are one and the same with those of Christianity”. He said that Labour had recently “lost its way” in relations with the churches, but that both sides shared the blame for this and needed to rebuild their relationship.

Ed Balls spoke of his positive early memories of his parents' Anglican church and said his father's commitment to Labour had grown out of Christianity. He added that Labour needs to “talk more about values”.

Diane Abbott emphasised the values with which she had been brought up, saying “We could do worse, as we go forward as a Labour movement, than return to those values of faith, community and family”.

Abbott built on her reputation as a critic of Blair and Brown, arguing that Labour's “big mistakes” in government “were when we departed from our values”. She accused the former government of making policy in a way designed to “appease Daily Mail readers”.

She was not the only one keen to disassociate herself from the thirteen years of New Labour government. Ed Miliband, who served as Energy and Climate Change Secretary under Gordon Brown, consistently presented himself as much more left-wing than the other three former ministers, twice addressing the audience as “comrades”.

Insisting that “politics is about changing society, not managing it”, he attacked the large gap between rich and poor in Britain, backed the Living Wage campaign and lamented the fact that the former government, to which he belonged, had opposed the Agency Workers' Directive - designed to improve agency workers' conditions – in the name of light business regulation. He said, “one person's flexible labour might be another person's lower wages”.

Ed Balls, the former Schools, Children and Families Secretary, also aimed for left-wing support, calling for the threshold for the top rate of tax to be reduced from £150,000 to £100,000 and welcoming the effect of the Jubilee 2000 campaign on world leaders' policies.

David Miliband, who served as Brown's Foreign Secretary, was far more supportive of the Blair-Brown governments, extolling their achievements on crime and the environment. He said he had pursued an “ethical foreign policy”, a claim consistently disputed by groups such as the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). Despite this, he was keen to sound economically progressive, suggesting that scrapping charitable status for private schools should come before cutbacks in free school meals.

The former Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, also refrained from heavy criticism of the previous government. But he backed the Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions and said that Labour should make the “moral case” for taxation forming a bigger percentage of the means of deficit reduction.

Migration was a key issue of contention. Abbott said that one reason she had stood for the leadership was to challenge the argument that Labour had lost the election because of immigration. She argued that the issue had become a “proxy” for problems of poverty and housing.

In response, Balls argued that immigration was a legitimate concern, and that it needs to be managed to avoid a negative effect on people on low incomes. But he insisted, “I don't pander to the Daily Mail - ever”.

Commenting on the coalition government's review of the detention of children in immigration centres, Balls stated that when in government he had asked the immigration service to consider closing the Yarl's Wood centre, but they had said it was not possible.

Issues of peace and war went almost unmentioned, except when Abbott was questioned on economics. She said she would “cut, in a measured way, defence spending”, withdraw troops from Afghanistan and scrap plans to renew the Trident nuclear weapons system.

All candidates agreed that faith-based groups play an important role in society and should be as entitled as other community organisations to deliver goods and services, although Burnham was keen to emphasise that this should not apply if the group required service users to follow their religion.

Abbott was the only candidate to mention abortion. She was keen to stress that “every abortion is a tragedy”, while strongly affirming her commitment to “a woman's right to choose”.

On sexuality, she said people have a right to “say they have a moral objection to homosexuality” but “if providing a service, they can't let that allow discrimination”. Ed Balls expressed his agreement with her.

The Labour Party leadership candidates are attending hustings events throughout the country during the summer. The result of the leadership election will be announced on 25 September, immediately before the opening of Labour's Conference.


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