An end to 'retail politics'?

Written by Andrew Studdert-Kennedy on .


The sad demise of Sir Malcolm Rifkind's political career and the equally disastrous error of judgment that befell Jack Straw are likely only to confirm the scepticism with which people in Britain view politicians and our political process.

In part it is the need to address this disengagement that prompted the Bishops of the Church of England to write a Pastoral letter entitled Who is my neighbour? A letter from the House of Bishops to the People and Parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015.

It is the first time that any such statement or letter has been produced by the Church of England before an election, and whilst the letter is addressed to church members, the hope is that it will engender wider debate. It is a piece of ‘public theology’ which encourages all of us to work towards a new kind of politics and above all to have a longer term vision of what might be best for our society.

‘The time has surely come’, states the letter, ‘to move beyond mere “retail politics”, where parties tailor their policies to the groups whose votes they need, regardless of the good of the majority… Instead of treating politics as an extension of consumerism, we should focus on the common good, the participation of more people in developing a political vision and constructive ways to talk about communities and how they relate to one another.’ (paragraph 32)

It is only a fresh vision that is likely to re-engage people with the political process, the bishops argue.

At the heart of the document’s social theology is an attempt to move decisively beyond the obsolete ‘left/right’ divide (Old Labour statism versus Thatcherite neo-liberalism) which has stifled the nation’s political imagination for a generation.

What emerges is not a shopping list of policies, but a recognition that whilst both state and market contribute to the Common Good, it is the many intermediary institutions (charities, voluntary groups, societies, clubs and even churches) that provide the human link and which may be most effective at protecting the weak and vulnerable.

Perhaps the letter is a bit long (50 pages, though easy to read) and it is of course open to the criticism that it contains generalisations rather than specifics, but that doesn’t prevent it from making  a truly constructive contribution to debate during the ten weeks before the election itself.

Here in Marlborough local churches have teamed up with the Politics Department of St John’s Academy and have organised a Parliamentary Election Hustings on Wednesday, April 15 at 7.30pm in St John’s Theatre on the Hill. All candidates for the Devizes Constituency should be present.

The full text of the Bishops’ pastoral letter can be found here.