We should be declaring a moral emergency

By Bernadette Meaden
July 24, 2019

As the full horror of a Boris Johnson premiership unfolds like a slow-motion car crash, today seems like a good day to focus on a politician who is declaring a moral emergency and presenting radical compassion as the solution.

For many years, my view of Liam Byrne, MP for Hodge Hill in the West Midlands, was not positive, for a couple of reasons. He was Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the last Labour government, and on leaving office in 2010 left a note for his Liberal Democrat successor which said, “I’m afraid there is no money.” This was a joke, (one he now bitterly regrets) a reference to the usual Treasury response to Ministers requesting funding for their departments. Traditionally, these personal notes left for successors remained confidential.

Famously, however, the Coalition government not only revealed the note but was happy for it to be widely misquoted as “there is no money left”, implying that the outgoing Labour government had spent recklessly. It was used to help justify savage austerity, taking billions from social security, from local councils, and from just about every public service.

In 2015, Byrne was one of 184 Labour MPs who did not vote against the Conservatives’ Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which amongst other things brought cuts to disability benefits, housing benefit and child tax credits. It was kicking people who were already down after five years of austerity, and Labour’s failure to oppose it made many people feel abandoned. So my impression of Byrne was not positive. 

Then, in the last year or so, that began to change. He regularly appeared on social media at foodbanks and with homeless people in his constituency. At first I was sceptical. The foodbank photo opportunity is now a rather tasteless cliche, as politicians who made foodbanks necessary use them for a PR stunt. And then, when I learned Mr Byrne intended to stand for the position of West Midlands Metro Mayor, cynicism again reared its ugly head. Was all his good work just electioneering?

But it did look as if he wasn’t just posing at foodbanks, but rolling up his sleeves and getting stuck in. He seemed actually to be listening with respect to foodbank users and homeless people, not patronising them. To me, he looked like a politician genuinely interested in social justice, and in learning from people who are in poverty or homeless - in stark contrast to politicians who, for instance, pronounced on social justice and then came up with Universal Credit.

Now, Byrne has published a draft manifesto which could not be more different from the shallow, harsh, dishonest and divisive politics which currently dominates our country, the politics which seems to operate in a bubble where the least fortunate sections of the population simply don’t exist, or don’t count.

A Manifesto for Radical Compassion begins, “We face a moral emergency. Homelessness is soaring. Hunger is spreading. We need not only food banks - but foodbank warehouses to feed desperate families. The most vulnerable are being stripped of the benefits they desperately need. The Tories’ austerity is destroying lives.”

A moral emergency. That is indeed what we face, as poor communities now gear up for the school holidays as if for a siege, working flat out to ensure that children do not become malnourished in the absence of free school meals. It is a moral emergency, when those working on society’s front line report growing destitution, but the priority for an aspiring Prime Minister is to promise tax cuts for the already wealthy. It is a moral emergency, and it is a politician, not a religious leader, who has named it.

Liam Byrne happens to be a Catholic, and as someone familiar with Catholic Social Teaching, I hear an echo of those principles in this document. But Byrne cites another Christian source of inspiration: George Dawson, the radical-19th century Birmingham preacher who was the driving force behind the ‘civic gospel’ that inspired the invention of municipal socialism. Byrne writes about his civic gospel with admiration here 

Dawson was a dynamic figure who had little time for theology or religious dogma. He took the basic message of the Gospel, love God and love one’s neighbour, and called upon his congregation to apply it through public service, to improve the quality of life for their fellow citizens. In Dawson’s Unitarian church "no pledge was required, of minister or congregation; no form of belief was implied by membership; no difference in creed was allowed to bar union in practical Christian work".

Whilst having this broadly Christian inspiration, the manifesto is completely inclusive, written by and for the people of one of the most diverse regions in the UK. It aims to unite people around the ideals of #MoreInCommon, with a mission to oppose the politics of division through a “coalition of kindness that works to bring people together.” And these aren’t just warm words, there are policy proposals to make them a reality. There are also plans to make the West Midlands a Region of Sanctuary for refugees.

Byrne cites Clem Attlee as his political hero, and like his hero he certainly doesn’t lack ambition for his community. He proposes a Green Industrial Revolution for the Midlands, including a Green Energy Cooperative to finance community-owned renewable power generation, a municipal Green Development Corporation, a 15 year zero-carbon transport plan, and a Peoples’ Bank.

But alongside these grand plans to restructure the economy of the region, to make it fairer and greener, there is also attention to the bread and butter issues that currently, and needlessly, make life so much harder for so many people. This is usually due to a national policy which regional politicians cannot change: but they can help defend people. Byrne proposes, for instance, to create “a Fighting Fund to pay for professional advocates for those fighting for their Personal Independence Payment in a DWP tribunal.”

Byrne has grasped the depth of suffering, injustice and dis-ease in his community, and understands the scale and the nature of the change that is needed to heal it. He has produced, with his community, a holistic plan for joined-up government which could really transform their region for the better. This manifesto starts from where people are, and maps a way of getting to the kind of society they want and need. 

A Manifesto for Radical Compassion is politics as if people mattered. After a decade of austerity, and national governments that look like a game for the rich and privileged, that is extremely welcome. Many people may disagree with its proposals, but after years of divisive politics in which the poorest and most disadvantaged people have been relentlessly crushed, it would seem churlish not to applaud its kindness, compassion, energy and optimism.

And perhaps our churches and faith leaders could agree, that we do indeed face a moral emergency.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden 


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