Election Hustings Thoughts

Mon, 02/12/2019 - 13:27 -- James Oakley
Credit: Elliott Stallion

Yesterday evening, I attended a General Election hustings organised by Churches Together in Sevenoaks and District. All 6 candidates for the Sevenoaks Constituency attended, and did a good job at tackling a range of questions fairly efficiently. The event was full, with most seats in the large nave of St Nicholas Sevenoaks taken. The tone was positive and engaging.

Coming away, I had a few thoughts, that I share here in no particular order.

Start with a couple concerning how Christians engage with politics.

1. I was slightly disappointed that there weren't more people there. Sure, there was a good crowd, but the number from our own two churches was very small, and I suspect this was replicated across the district. The crowd was large because so many churches were represented; the proportion of worshippers who came was small.

That may indicate a number of things. For some, it could just have been a cold, December evening.

But it may also indicate two more worrying trends. Could it be that many Christians are not engaged with the political process, and somehow think the issues being discussed were unimportant? Could it also be that many have already decided how they will vote, either because the national televised debates are suitably informing, or because they will vote for the party they always choose and do not wish to think further.

Actually, the local level is hugely important. You cannot beat being in a room with the 6 people competing to represent this constituency in parliament. They will comment on their views on local issues, such as local schooling, transport, immigration, food banks and social care. They will also give their views on the ethical issues that may arise in the next parliament, when MPs often have a free vote. It's troubling if Christians do not engage with those seeking our vote.

2. I was slightly disappointed at the lack of specifically Christian discussion.

In part, this lack came from the candidates. Their opening 2 minute addresses were probably largely the same as they would give at any hustings event; they did not seem particularly aware that they were addressing a church event as they answered questions either.

It also came from those asking the questions. Most of the topics discussed were those that you'd expect at any hustings event, and the questions were rarely couched to draw out the nuances Christians would particularly care about. For example (and not intentionally picking on any one questioner), instead of asking about the environment in general, why not ask as follows: "As a Christian, I believe the earth belongs to the Lord, and we are stewards who will give an account for the way we look after it. How would voting for you allow me to tell God that I've taken my responsibility seriously?"

It makes me wonder if Christians are not thinking their politics through, in terms of how their faith impacts their political opinions. Which, in turn, makes me wonder if we pastors are too narrow as we apply the Bible in our preaching. In particular, are we reticent to address political topics, for fear of being labelled party-political? But it also makes me wonder if politicians realise that Christians have particular reasons to care about the issues they debate and vote on. If they don't, might that lack of awareness be of our own making.

Now a couple more general thoughts.

3. Spin triumphs over substance. The quality of public speaking from the candidates was, for the most part, pretty good. Some were more coherent than others, but they all knew how to address a full room of interested people.

However, very little was actually said. Many of those speaking found ways of talking on the topic of the question but without presenting clear policy commitments. Specifically, what was missing was good, solid, well-reasoned argument. During the whole evening, there were only two comments made that genuinely made me think because they addressed the specific questions being asked, in ways that weren't just trotting out the overdone rhetoric from the national scene. One related the rightness, or otherwise, of a second Brexit referendum; the other related to how to balance taxation and spending.

At the end of the day, it would be easy to come away from the evening feeling good about the way you intended to vote before the evening had begun. The positive rhetoric and polished speaking just confirms your prejudice. Yet, for all that, you'd have learnt little about exactly what the candidates think and how they would debate and vote on your behalf.

4. Politics shies away from ethics. This may be peculiar to our constituency, but when asked about abortion not one of the candidates offered a coherent pro-life viewpoint. That may not be unexpected, but they did not seem to be aware that in a roomful of Christians some would be deeply bothered by this. More worryingly, they were happy simply to be inconsistent. More than one candidate (from opposite ends of the political spectrum) articulated that life begins at conception, but went on to say that (effectively) this should not impact what the law has to say. Their answers on this question were a lot briefer than on other issues, suggesting they were on much less comfortable territory.

This is worrying. A Christian political view cannot be boiled down to one or two shibboleth ethical issues. But we want politicians who can engage with the ethical dimension of topics like this, and who see that as part of their responsibility. Otherwise, when these issues come up in parliament, the debates will be about expediency and will similarly bypass any ethical dimension.


All in all, I thought it was a good evening. At short notice, it had been well arranged; it was well attended, extremely well chaired, and the candidates were civil and respectful of the process.

But I came away feeling a little deflated and troubled. As Christians, we have work to do to bring our faith to bear in the political arena. Only then will we be the salt and light Jesus calls us to be.

Now, if only I could work out who to vote for. If anything, I'm less clear than I was before!

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