The problems with joining the Labour Party
I am a woman born of immigrant parents and brought up on a council estate. I was in the first generation of my family to go to university. I am a member of Amnesty International and care greatly about the way asylum seekers are treated, and have visited an asylum seeker detained in Pentonville and helped him and his family. I was the person in my year at university to whom the fellow student came who had had an abortion; I was the one who put my arms around her when she was crying and told her she wasn’t disgusting and that her friends were wrong to shun her. I am a Feminist. I don’t believe in judging people and I passionately support the welfare state and the NHS. I can’t stand what this coalition government is doing.
So why then did I, a Labour voter and ex labour party member, not vote Labour in the last election and why am I still hesitating about re-joining the Labour party now?
My main reason for not voting for Labour in the last election was that I believed it would win, but I wanted it to have a vastly reduced majority because of the arrogant way that it had ignored our marches against the Iraq war. I hated the way it seemed to be flirting with privatisation, had closed our local hospital in spite of so many appeals against it, and seemed to be so materialistic in its aspirations. I wanted it to be shocked out of its arrogance, but not defeated. I also knew that it had no hope of winning in my constituency.
So why am I , a socialist woman, not rushing now to support the Labour Party and get it back into power? Why am I hesitating about re-joining and campaigning on its behalf?
Firstly because I am a religious woman and after New Labour’s term in power I honestly don’t know if I am welcome in the Party. I really want to be, and I hope that my perception is wrong, but I have felt in recent times that there was less and less hope for a religious woman, university educated but from a working class background like me, to be listened to or respected within the modern Labour Party. I know that Gordon Brown was open about his Christian beliefs, but the general impression I get is that Religion seems to be taboo, and to be politically active precisely because of religious principles, or to have problems with policy because of Christian religious principles, is to be automatically equated with being a right wing fundamentalist, a bigot or at worst stupidly naive. That wasn’t always the case. The modern Labour party had its roots in traditional working class communities, and most of all in the deeply held view of the Methodist Church in particular, that social injustice was contrary to the teachings of Christ. New Labour seems to me to be middle class, socially Liberal, very suspicious to the point of being contemptuous of religion and religious traditions and although often highly educated, unembarrassed by, even proud of, its profound ignorance of religion.
I feel it reserves a particular contempt for traditional Christianity which I find infuriating, as it seems to be happy to mistakenly and lazily identify my religion with the recent materialistic quasi Christianity of crass tele-evangelists on American cable TV stations, whilst ignoring Labour’s own roots in the genuinely socially active Methodist/Trade Union tradition of our own country. Whilst Labour rightly abhors sexism and bigotry in other areas it has been too quick to project outwards and locate them in religious traditions, and far from being open to discussion, appears to be as happy as any intolerant religion to dismiss anybody who queries Labour party policy on grounds of religious belief. This makes me angry personally as a religious woman, but also as a socialist, as it allows the Conservatives to claim the traditional religious vote. I don’t want Labour to woo religious votes by lip service – I want Labour to genuinely be happy with religious people being part of the party, and to be able to cope with the debate that will inevitably arise if that happens, for the sake of the vibrancy and groundedness and sense of shared commitment that comes with having different people in the Party.
For me, living a good, loving life is complicated. I try to live with integrity but am aware that this is difficult, so I particularly value a basic framework of values and beliefs to live by and hopefully to interpret with Love. I am a religious person, but this does not mean, I hope, that I am bigoted or prejudiced.
I am not convinced that the present Labour Party wants to hold within it mature people who respect each other, differ profoundly on some issues, and yet are linked by a common commitment to socialist values. I think that this is partly because of the second reason why I hesitate about joining the Labour Party or voting Labour, which is that those whose opinions seem to count in the New Labour party, who make policy, seem to be career politicians, genuinely very clever people, who understand PR and committees and university politics but have never NOT been in politics. They have not had enough experience of life outside politics. I feel they are more happy with the adversarial, rather immature way of debating in universities, and have not grown out of labelling people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘Right’ or ‘Left’. They mix with people who agree with them, and cannot tolerate real dissension or debate. They project all the intolerance and ignorance outwards onto religious or ‘right wing people’, but they are often profoundly intolerant and ignorant themselves. It is harder to avoid people with differing religious and political views in the communities of the ‘normal world’ – work colleagues and those you worship with are often going to hold different opinions, yet over the years the disciplines of the workplace and the religious community mean that you have to somehow get along or at least acknowledge common ground with them. Far from intolerance and bigotry, I have found the Catholic parishes I have worshipped in to contain a far greater mix of races and political opinions than any student political society. In student politics, by contrast, it is tempting and easy to dismiss those with whom you disagree as’“loony Lefties’ or ‘Rightwing fascists’ and you don’t ever have to work together on something you mutually agree with. I think that New Labour has still some of that intolerance and inflexibility in its attitude towards debate in general and traditional religion in particular, and I find the invective directed against those perceived to be political opponents is very off putting and intimidating. I would like to feel that the internal discipline and values of the Labour Party would preclude such bullying in debate rather than take pleasure in it. Unless you have more people with varied life and work experience in the Labour Party and as MPs this will not happen.
When I was growing up as a working class girl in the 1960s my faith and values wouldn’t have been a problem for the Labour party. My Mum and Dad are Irish catholics with a long traditional marriage and four children – my Dad was the breadwinner, an unskilled, hard working, builder’s labourer, my Mum stayed at home as a housewife until I was about 10, and then got a part time job cleaning in the priest’s house. Every week my Dad would hand over his wage packet to my Mum, and she would work miracles. Our clothes were secondhand from jumble sales. Mum would re- sell good clothes that we had grown out of. She would wash old woollen jumpers, unravel and use the wool again to knit new jumpers and dolls clothes. Her purse was stuffed with money off coupons. We had no car and relied on public transport and walking. My Dad grew vegetables. Mum made home made bread and recycled everything. We said the rosary every night. My Mum gave to charity. My parents worked hard, prayed hard. We felt the Labour party were on our side, and helped hard working families. The Labour Party was the party of the NHS and free education. My parents, who both left school at 14 and felt disadvantaged by their lack of education, believed that Labour would make it that things would be better for their children. I had a full grant and went to university. We were Labour through and through.
I am still a practicing Roman Catholic. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want changes in my Church – I would welcome women priests and married priests and I have members of my own close family who were damaged by sexual abuse. One of my best friends is Lesbian and is my daughter’s godmother, and I see no problem with a Gay couple adopting, but I do however have religious problems with the creation of a child by sperm or egg donation or surrogacy for a Gay OR heterosexual couple. My friend can respect my position, but I am worried that women in the Labour Party would not. I know that there is a lot wrong with the Catholic Church as an institution. But I also love it and think that its teachings on social Justice and community have much in common with Socialism. It is part of my culture as a 2nd generation Irish Catholic, but more importantly, I believe in its central teachings, I believe in Jesus Christ and find that praying within the Catholic Church helps me find God. I respect other religions greatly and find them fascinating. I also find much mutual respect when I go to interfaith meetings. I haven’t picked up that respect for religion from the modern Labour Party. It has allowed the Conservative party to go largely unchallenged when they proclaim that they are the party of Christian values, and it seems itself to have decided to adopt a materialistic, secular point of view. The fact that the Labour party has deep roots in Christian Methodism does not seem to be acknowledged, and it appears that it is somehow offensive or at best embarrassingly naive to have a faith, and, I am sad to say, to be Christian. I don’t find it offensive that anyone is an atheist or agnostic, I find it interesting. I would hope that members of the Labour Party would be united in trying to create a better, more Just society and that religious or not, we would be able to respect and listen to each other and tolerate and learn from our differences.
In matters like Abortion, for example, I know that the issue is complicated. I will never forget the distress of my fellow student, and would not have dreamt of saying to her, at that time and in her situation, that I had misgivings about the abortion she had just undergone. I think however, that within membership of a socialist political party we should always be discussing how we can make society a better, more loving one for men, women and children, and that members SHOULD be able to question fellow socialists as to where legalised abortion comes into this vision, and how we can lessen the need for it at all, without being identified with right wing, extremist, horrible, murderous, anti abortion groups. There are many areas in theory where those in the Labour Party who see themselves as anti abortion and those who see themselves as pro-choice could work together to make a better society, yet my impression is that if I rejoined the Labour Party and tried to take an active part I would be met with aggression if I said that I was Left wing and a Feminist but also had problems with some legalised abortion (particularly abortion up until birth in cases of disability) or the provision of the morning after pill to schoolgirls. I have met with terrible militant narrow minded anti abortionists, but I have also known people who were anti abortion who were non judgemental, gentle people running supportive hostels and giving genuine help and who would never have dreamt of intimidating others. This never seems to be acknowledged in debate.
If my perceptions of the Labour Party’s attitude towards religious people are wrong I will be really happy. I would love to feel welcome as a Catholic woman in the Labour Party. I am scared by our government, and desperately want it to be replaced, but I don’t want a coalitionlite New Labour Government. I want to vote for and be a member of a Labour Party with genuine Socialist principles, with the Old Labour respect for tradition and religious values and society, a mature party which can hold and listen to people with disparate views and religious and cultural backgrounds but a common commitment to a Fair and Just society.
Is there a place for me?
*Note from the Editor* Anne informs me that she is now getting in touch with her local branch of the Labour Party and has decided to take that step to get back involved. We need to re engage with members who left our party and we need to renew, change and I believe we can do this. Onwards……