St Paul's Institute

It Doesn't Have To Be Like This

by Andrew Bradstock and Jenny Sinclair

Posted: 28 Apr 2015

This election campaign is bringing into sharp relief how out of touch the 'political' conversation has become. The lives of real communities around the country are a long way from the polarised jargon used by the media and the political class.

We are seeing the main parties fighting over the 'centre ground', using a hollowed-out language that rarely resonates with reality, further estranging politicians from ordinary people.

Even an issue about which there is some agreement - that the NHS should be adequately funded and free at the point of use - gets kicked around and reduced to short-termism and fighting over numbers.

As some want to see more freedom for the market, and some want more power for the state, and as we hear promises about how much better off we shall be if we vote for them, issues vital to our future have been reduced to political point scoring. Our politics seem as divided and beset by sectional interests as ever.

We hear a lot about deals and red lines but we don't hear much about our politicians' vision: leadership and serious vision for a 'good society' gets little airtime. Few will talk about how they will work to ensure that everybody can flourish, including those whose interests their party traditionally does not represent. We hear little about how they will serve those whose voices are least often heard, such as the vulnerable and uncompetitive, and those who get dehumanised behind labels like 'scroungers', 'benefit cheats', 'bigots' and 'immigrants'.

Media-led discussions focusing on the neuralgic points of the political class contain little about what we, as citizens, can do to build a stronger civil society. We hear a lot about individual rights, but almost nothing about what practical steps each of us can take to counter the fracturing of our society and to contribute within our communities at the grassroots to create a fairer and more inclusive country.

It all feels strangely unsatisfying, with a sense that 'it doesn't have to be like this'.

What we want to hear more of is how parties and politicians will work together for the good of society; how, while acknowledging their differences, they will model a relational approach by committing to serving the greater good by talking openly with each other and seeking shared solutions to our major challenges.

For this to change would not require politicians to be unrealistic about their differences, but rather to acknowledge that 'the other' may also be driven by good motives and a genuine desire to serve the community. We want purposeful leadership that models mutual respect and provides a basis for a practical and 'mutual' approach to finding solutions.

It can be done: at St Martin-in-the-Fields this month politicians from different parties came together under the banner Towards a Politics for the Common Good to explore what such a politics would look and sound like. As the Evening Standard reported, they disagreed on many things, but a commitment to promoting the Common Good provided a common language to use.

Most would agree that collaboration across difference makes good sense but as David Lammy (Labour) commented, 'I am grateful for good faith. But if we assume bad faith, common ground and common good is hard to achieve'. There is no doubt that our more thoughtful politicians would prefer a less febrile environment - as Alistair Burt (Conservative) remarked, we need a 'new political discourse that moves away from confrontation.'

But the Common Good approach is not a soft option. It is rigorous and demands much of each of us involved. It requires us to commit to working with those we disagree with. It requires fresh thinking and the application of core principles like subsidiarity and solidarity in a framework of goodwill. But like applying the gospel imperative to love one's neighbour as oneself to the challenges of a supply chain or employment practices, it is also, as many are discovering, good for business.

The event at St Paul's on 29 April, Beyond Election Day: Power, Money, Government and Responsibility, is about exploring further how the language of the Common Good can re-shape our political, cultural and economic life together. And while getting us thinking about the Common Good it will itself model how the Common Good 'works' as a practice, by bringing together people with divergent perspectives to engage in open and honest conversation to discern practical ways forward.

Not for this panel a compulsion to win the argument and go home having bagged more points than their 'opponents', or a polarisation that closes down dialogue, entrenching the opposition, and blocking change. Rather each will come prepared to discover points of convergence and unexpected new paths forward, paths of relationship which will reflect more than their own particular interest.

This does not mean that points of difference will be buried - quite the reverse, for pursuing the Common Good means recognising and acknowledging conflict as it arises, negotiating and finding a creative way through. What might be different is how that conflict is handled.

Professor Andrew Bradstock and Jenny Sinclair are members of the Together for the Common Good Steering Group

© Andrew Bradstock and Jenny Sinclair

About this author

Professor Andrew Bradstock and Jenny Sinclair are members of the Together for the Common Good Steering Group.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.