Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Children, Community & Sustainability in tough times (Part 1)

Here's a fuller version of my talk last week to the Christian Child Care Forum. (The link to the PowerPoint slides is here.)

This diagram, from Children England's recent report 'Perfect Storms', says so much. For those of us who work in the so-called 'voluntary sector', the interrelatedness of savage funding cuts, increased costs (for people and households, as well as for us as organisations), and increased demand for services creates a vicious spiral of intensifying needs and pressures.

As theologian David Ford puts it so well, we find ourselves living with 'multiple overwhelmings':

“the consequences of multiple overwhelming create more intensive overwhelming... The personal and the political interact, so do the local and the global, the economic and the cultural. It is like a vast, multi-levelled ecology in which everything is somehow related to everything else.” (David Ford, The Shape of Living [1997], p.xvi, xx)

We're living in a climate - economic, political, social - of scarcity, anxiety, and fear: for our organisations, for our children, for our communities, and for our society...

So how do we respond? I want to sketch out two possible responses: a first, instinctive response (shaped by the dominant language and ways of thinking within our society), and a second, counter-intuitive response (shaped by a reading of a central story within the Christian faith, concerning children, adults, and Jesus).

A first response: 'SUSTAINABILITY'

“In dystopian times we are driven not just further into ‘scarcity thinking’, but risk becoming entrapped in ‘survival thinking’, where the dominant perspective is that life is dangerous, with hyper alertness to danger and risk. The inclination, therefore, is to exercise defensive tactics with even more intensity and to resort to the anxiety-ridden tactic of accumulating resources.” (Ann Morisy, Bothered & Bewildered: Enacting Hope in Troubled Times, p.62)
Ann Morisy expresses so well that 'instinctive' response we have, within an 'economy of scarcity', that we imagine will enable us to be 'sustainable'. Scott Bader-Saye, in a challenging book entitled Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, develops this theme into 3 dimensions, or 'core principles' of the 'fear business':
  1. ACCUMULATION: 'save for a rainy day'
  2. SUSPICION: 'don't talk to strangers'
  3. PRE-EMPTION: 'do unto others before they do unto you'
These are the 'mottos' of the 'fear business' - and it takes only a little self-reflection to see how much they govern our daily lives, our habits, our patterns of thinking and responding. They are deeply ingrained in each and every one of us - and in the way our organisations instinctively function.

A first response: 'COMMUNITY'

The 'economy of scarcity' also shapes the way we see and respond to our local communities - especially when we approach them as 'organisations' (or, indeed, as politicians). Communities like my own in Hodge Hill are all too often seen through the lenses of 'needs analysis' and IMD rankings (how deprived are you? what's lacking here? what are the 'service needs'?). We find ourselves described by politicians (and by those who unconsciously absorb, or are co-opted into, the political rhetoric) as 'broken communities', as embodying a 'dependency culture'. And even the best, most 'compassionate' organisations, articulate a deep concern for 'troubled families' (which all too easily slips into 'troublesome') and 'social exclusion' (while failing to ask who is doing the 'excluding'). When the Daily Mail describes my neighbourhood as the '7th most workshy estate' in the country, it fails to notice the vast numbers of my neighbours who depend on benefits because they work long hours for a less-than-living wage. When politicians describe my community as 'broken', they fail to notice that the fault lines of 'brokenness' run deep through our society as a whole.

A first response: 'BEING HUMAN'

At the core of the 'economy of scarcity', but largely unarticulated, is an understanding of what it means to be a human being. What it means to be valued as human, treated with full dignity as a fully 'included' member of society. The understanding seems to go a little like this...
To be fully human, you must be an individual (or a 'family'), who makes a net positive contribution to the country's economic well-being [thank you New Labour for the language here], a contribution which must be:
  • Financial (no other kind of contribution really matters) 
  • Direct (ignoring contributions which indirectly have a positive financial impact - e.g. caring for neighbours so that the state doesn't have to pick up the bill)
  • Current (you may have paid tax and NI for most of your lifetime, but if you're out of work now, you really don't count)
These contributions are made through:
  • Working (only paid work, obviously)
  • Consuming (you are more valuable the more you consume)
  • Tax-paying (for most of us, anyway - if you're really rich, then we'll let you off)
  • 'Investing' (a rather vaguely-defined option for those rich enough not to pay tax)
If that picture has some accuracy to it, what about those who don't fit into its description of 'fully human'? What about, for example, children...?

A first response: CHILDREN

Over the last couple of centuries (from the 18th through to mid-20th), we've been through a seismic shift in our understandings of childhood and children. This is no more than a sketch (and I owe much to American child theologian Bonnie Miller McLemore), but broadly it looks something like this:
  • ECONOMICALLY, children have moved from being seen as 'little adults' (if subordinate), 'workers' essential to the livelihood of the household, to 'little consumers', useless, if anything financially draining to the household (and at best 'commodities' to be 'invested' in)
  • EMOTIONALLY, this shift from 'necessity' to 'useless' has been accompanied by a corresponding 'psychological compensation' - children came to be seen as 'emotionally priceless' objects of love (at least within the private sphere)
  • SOCIALLY & POLITICALLY, children have shifted from being part of the sphere of adult activity (if perhaps 'seen but not heard') into a separate, privatised realm of home and school ('Children's Centres' being a great exemplar); and a sentimentalising of ones own children and child-rearing has gone hand-in-hand with an indifference to 'other people's children'
  • MORALLY & SPIRITUALLY, an old understanding of children entering the world bearing the marks of, and entangled in the distortions of, 'original sin' (albeit seen as something needing to be suppressed and controlled, but something shared with adults!) was replaced by a view of children as 'blank slates', morally neutral, even 'innocent' - and 'vulnerable', with responsibility pushed onto 'the world', 'consumerism', 'parenting', etc.
In recent years, I would suggest these trends have intensified...
  • ECONOMICALLY, we're now being told children are a burden on the state (witness proposals to limit child benefit for families with more than two children)
  • EMOTIONALLY, the 'fear business' is training us to see children as either 'at risk' (and therefore needing vast investment in 'protection') or 'antisocial' (which is defined as criminal, and therefore needs 'policing')
  • SOCIALLY & POLITICALLY, the contradictory impulses are just as sharp: on the one hand, the 'privatisation' of childhood is taken to its logical extreme, throwing schools to the mercy of market forces, where some (schools and children) 'win' and others are abandoned to lose; on the other hand, as in recent pronouncements from Liz Truss, a junior Education Minister, about pre-school provision, and Michael Gove's rewriting of the history curriculum, the state seeks, or demands, increasing control over, and structuring of, 'what children need' (to learn).
  • MORALLY & SPIRITUALLY, again there is a split by 'class' and socio-economic status: we are sold a dichotomy between 'good', 'hard-working' (well-paid) families, and 'troubled' (read 'troublesome' or even 'feral' (under-paid, under-employed) children and families. This is the return of 'original sin', inescapable by birth - with a crucial exception. It is no longer universal. It is only about 'them', and not about 'us'.
That's a sketch, a caricature perhaps, of where we seem to have got to - of our instinctive, media-shaped responses to children, to being human, to community, and to 'sustainability' for organisations that seek to work with children (and perhaps other '3rd sector' organisations too).

Part 2 will seek to shift our focus, and change our response...


Oscar Romero was a priest and bishop in El Salvador. His love for his people who were suffering violence and oppression led him to take their side and to denounce their oppressors. And so he was killed, whilst saying Mass, on 24th March 1980. He wrote these words not long before his murder...

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision. 

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us. 

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything. 

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities. 

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest. 

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Children, Community & Sustainability in tough times

I was asked to 'do some theology' for the Christian Child Care Forum annual conference, which met yesterday in Birmingham, focusing on the theme of 'Surviving or Thriving'. The Forum includes a number of big national children's charities with Christian roots, as well as a number of smaller, more local ones.

I've uploaded the slides from my presentation here.

When I have some time in the next little while, I want to write a fuller version of the talk, which I'll post on this blog.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Re-imagining & insurrection: starting from the local

Many of the pieces of 'grit' that for me challenge, nurture and inspire the pearls of bright ideas begin in conversation with my great friend Tim. He's a CEO of a great little charity called Worth Unlimited, that works with some of the most marginalised young people in some of the most marginalised communities around the country, 'building hope, unlocking potential, realising worth' as their strapline puts it. He also happens to be a member of my congregation, and one of my local Labour councillors. We're both enmeshed in national, historical 'institutions', and although we might place ourselves somewhere in the uncomfortable edges, borderlands, of each other's, neither of us can quite get away from them entirely.

Last night we were wrestling with the challenge and possibility of 'reimagining' our society, something I began to explore in my last blog post. Tim suggested that where the Occupy movement fell down was that they were asking exactly the right question at exactly the right time, but weren't able to clearly and coherently articulate an alternative to the neoliberal capitalist system that seemed - at least for a moment - to be crumbling around us. And then, it seemed, the moment passed, and the system continued on its merrily ruthless way, sustaining the wealth-amassing of the richest and slashing the incomes, the opportunities, the resources and the safety nets for the poorest. By contrast, Tim pointed out, the Amish communities in North America have, we suspect, sustained their simple way of life, barely touched by the global financial crises of the last few years. There are alternatives to the apparently all-consuming system - we just need to look for them, and have the imaginative courage to contemplate them.

'We need a new kind of Opposition', I argued in my last blog post. And Community Organising and widespread Time Banking, I suggested, are two key ways of finding it, and bridging the 'empathy deficit' which so poisons 'professional' and 'mass media' politics today. But there is more...

Before 'organising', there needs to be 'community'.

As a Christian theologian, I am reminded of the work of Stanley Hauerwas and those who have associated closely with him. Hauerwas, in a simplistic nutshell, argues long and hard that the Christian community - 'the church' in its local form - should be the location of an 'alternative society', where human beings are formed (from birth upwards) in a different way, with a different kind of imagination, speaking a different kind of language, and acting in a different kind of way, to that of those 'outside'. Hauerwas writes persuasively - and he could never be labelled 'conservative' in any conventional sense: he warmly embraces same-sex relationships, for example, he is unambiguously anti-capitalist, and he would give his life in non-violent resistance to the militarist violence of the world.

But there is more. As important as Hauerwas' 'turn to community' is, highlighting as it does the kind of 'ideal' that the Amish communities we've already mentioned might almost embody, the danger of Hauerwas' rhetoric is that encourages Christians to retreat into their enclaves, away from 'engagement' with their non-Christian neighbours. And also, in fact, it simply doesn't do justice to the way Christians are shaped both by their participation in church communities and also by their participation in neighbourly relationships, in other (non-'Christian') organisations, in economic exchange, democratic politics, and so on. What one of Hauerwas' friends and critics Romand Coles calls the 'radical insufficiency' of each of our traditions, organisations and communities, Hauerwas will never quite acknowledge about the church.

From 'church' to 'neighbourhood'

What we're trying to do in Hodge Hill is a bit different. Shaped and driven by the values of compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope we Christians have learnt within our faith tradition, we are committed to being present and active in our local neighbourhood, seeking out and celebrating those values in our neighbours and other local organisations, of other faiths and of none, and finding common ground in those values to work together to re-imagine and experiment with 'growing loving community' in this place. It's untidy, messy even. It's often fragile. It's certainly not always 'successful', in any conventional sense. It relies both on using the power we have (sometimes), and just as often - if not more - on giving it away, or simply letting it go. It sometimes involves taking the initiative, but often involves waiting for others to do so, or responding creatively ('overaccepting', I have called it) to those things that are already underway or just beginning.

We have a long way to go here before we could even begin to claim to be comprehensively re-imagining what 'community', let alone 'society', might look like. The 'Transition Towns' network is an inspiration to me, and I know other friends and neighbours round here, as to the kind of direction we might find we're heading in: a holistic approach to community that includes, centres itself on, the earth itself, that seeks a high level of self-sufficiency - not as individuals, but as a neighbourhood - and that dares to say, loud and clear, 'enough is enough'. But even 'transition towns' are on a journey, rather than 'got there' - and are far from a comprehensive, or clearly-heard, voice in national political conversations. They are good on 'green issues' - but what are 'transition towns' doing about welfare, or adult social care, for example? It would be good to hear, and see, what the possibilities might be, when you start the journey from somewhere radically different.

Insurrection: 'change the system by ignoring it'

With all these thoughts buzzing around my head from last night to this morning, my much-longed-for Saturday morning lie-in didn't really happen. Instead, I reached for one of the books on the 'to read' pile beside my bed, and dipped into Peter Rollins' challenging, provocative Insurrection: To Believe is Human; To Doubt, Divine. In the chapter entitled 'I Believe in the Insurrection', he reminds us, via readings of Batman (The Dark Knight) and The Matrix trilogy, why 'trying to change the system' (the 'token gesture') and 'attacking the system' (the 'perverse protest') both ensure that the system never changes. The 'token gesture' (giving to someone in need, volunteering at a homeless shelter, channelling millions of pounds from Wayne Industries into fighting Gotham City's baddies) might give us a sense of meaning, but can simply mask the oppressive structures and systems that create the needs. Our 'direct and passionate protests' against the system, however, can be just as 'perverse', enabling us to feel like rebels for a while, but often simply turning out to be 'release valves in the system, opportunities for people to resist in a way that [is] ultimately authorized by those in control'.

Rollins suggests a different way, a way with echoes of Hauerwas, but pushing further than Hauerwas would want to go. 'The way of Resurrection life', says Rollins, is 'a way of living that is able to short-circuit the present social, spiritual, or political order' - that is able to 'change the system by ignoring it'. He cites Mother Teresa as an embodiment of this different way: 'who no more protested against the caste system in Calcutta than she affirmed it. She simply lived a different reality.' For Rollins, in fact, Mother Teresa embodies the bigger argument of his book: in committing to her work with passion, while holding a 'deep inner agony and emptiness', Rollins sees her as someone who undertakes a journey, shaped by the story of Jesus, on which all Christians are called to embark: beginning with 'giving up everything for God (Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane), through the act of giving up everything including God (Christ on the Cross) to the point at which we become the very site of God (Resurrection life).'

In the UK today, and perhaps in the world more widely, we urgently need to find a way beyond the 'token gesture' and the 'perverse protest' which allow the system to 'go on' as if there really is no serious alternative. While Rollins helpfully calls me back to my faith, and my faith community, in 'changing the system by ignoring it', he doesn't immediately seem to allow for the messy experimentation within a neighbourhood, to which we're passionately committed in Hodge Hill, and in which we are glimpsing real signs of hope, and alternative possibility. But the kind of 'a/theistic' journey that Rollins sees embodied in the life of Mother Teresa is, I suspect, the kind of journey on which we all need to embark in our neighbourhoods, and our country, for the world to really be changed. We need to come face to face with the impossibility of community: with its inherent brokenness, because of the fragile, broken human beings that make it up - and we need to be able to lament this, with anger and deep sorrow, without clinging to a facade of innocence, but in a way that goes beyond 'perverse protest' or violent scapegoating - in a way rooted in what theologian Andrew Shanks calls the 'solidarity of the shaken'.

This might, if people like me are very lucky, turn out to be a valuable contribution that the Christian church could make to wider society - a witness to that brokenness and impossibility, held together with a witness to hope and possibility; a witness to the possibility of facing up to the brokenness in ways that don't do violence, and don't fall into despair or cynicism. It should, both locally and nationally, be a cause for the Christian church to engage in tactics - opportunistic openings - rather than strategies - those 'grand visions' so beloved of politicians, managers and - at times - bishops and priests (as I have, boringly often, suggested here before).

But ultimately, it is the calling for all of us, as human beings together. To embark on a journey where we find ourselves 'giving up everything for community', through the shock of 'giving up everything including community', to discovering a radically new way of life in which everything has changed, our human brokenness has not been eradicated, and yet love and justice reign. On that journey of re-imagining, of resurrection, of insurrection, we are best of starting the only place we can: exactly where we are - on our street, in our neighbourhood. But it will lead us to the ends of the earth.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

We need a new kind of Opposition

"[Community Organising] is best understood as a means by which to formulate and embody a contradiction to any given instance of injustice. ... Political actions for Alinsky are simultaneously to declare the unjust way to be untrue and to present a possible alternative through which all may flourish. Alinsky’s insistence on having a constructive alternative means that the declaration of a “No” to something is always premised on the prior celebration and upholding of a “Yes” to another way, a way in which both oppressor and oppressed are invited to participate."[1]

We urgently need a new kind of Opposition in Britain.

No alternative?

In the aftermath of the death of an old Prime Minister, it is clearer than ever that the three main political parties are, with minor variations, Thatcher's children. Most disappointingly, the self-proclaimed 'One Nation Labour' party have offered no coherent, imaginative alternative to the dominant neo-liberal narrative which governs this country for the ever-increasing wealth of the richest, depending on the anxiety of those who are told they are the 'squeezed middle' (see my earlier post on this pernicious language game), and marginalising and stigmatising the poorest.

Iain Duncan Smith, demonstrating unapologetically to the world his near-total 'empathy deficit', proclaims breezily that he could live off £53 a week, and yet has no intention of proving it, while Liam Byrne, his opposite number, would not even dare challenge him, because he has positioned himself in a no-win corner, trying to play the Right at their own game, suggesting merely that 'people who put more in' to the welfare system 'should expect to get more out' - a policy that neither has any economic grounding in the practice of other kinds of insurance policy, nor any serious capacity to provide a safety net for those most precarious and vulnerable.

At the same time, trade union leaders anxiously warn Ed Miliband against contemplating scrapping Trident, the multi-billion pound psychological fiction of the nation's power and security, impotent against terrorism, and utterly ineffective against the kind of nuclear escalation we are currently being scared about with North Korea. £25 billion for 13,000 jobs - that's roughly £2 million per job, which is by all accounts a rather large amount of money which could be invested in a more creative, and less destructive (in many, many senses), job creation scheme.

And while the passionate anger of so many of us finds something of a voice in anti-cuts protests, the distortion of language by the decision-makers that uses the apparently reasonable-sounding word 'reform' for something which in practice is little more than 'ruthless slashing', means that those on the other side of the picket line have already had the game taken away from them, left to doggedly 'defend public services' against the crashing waves of the 'There Is No Alternative' ('TINA') argument - while often having to admit, with an air of some desperation, that they find it hard to imagine any alternative beyond 'keep going as we are'.

Glimpses of imaginative possibility

To be fair, there are glimpses of imaginative possibility around. UK Uncut at its best does what the 'Occupy' movement does at its best - occupying public (and often 'private') spaces and creating within them, at least temporarily, an 'alternative economy': 'bailing into the banks and setting up libraries, forests, hospitals, schools, playgrounds, leisure centres and everything else that needs saving'. These 'micro-actions' ring more than a few bells with Alinsky's 'embodied contradictions' described in the quote with which I began - they open up a crack of possibility in the dominant 'TINA' discourse - but they are all too easily dismissed as 'stunts' without serious credibility...

...which, of course, is how Iain Duncan-Smith labelled the petition, at the time of writing just shy of half a million signatories, which challenges him to put his money where his mouth is, and attempt to live off that £53 a week that he so casually claimed he could do, for a year. But I would suggest the 'stunt' is actually something much more serious - something that might even herald a new kind of political 'Opposition'.

Bridging the 'empathy deficit'

If poverty is, as Alastair McIntosh defines it, 'a form of violence that comes from a deficit of empathy between those who have much and those who have little', then we need a new kind of politician: not the comfortable millionnaires (whether Tory, LibDem or Labour) living in their gated mansions and pronouncing about people about whom they have learnt little, and from whom they have learnt even less, but courageous human beings who are prepared to bridge the 'empathy gaps' and root themselves in the communities that, in conventional language, are 'the least well off' - and by 'root themselves', I mean live and move and educate their children and do their shopping and so on. Perhaps we need to make it compulsory for MPs to work part-time - and spend the rest of their week volunteering with local voluntary organisations - enabling them, in passing, to get a better grip on the challenges faced by those of us in the so-called Third (or 'Tired') Sector...?

But the empathy deficit is, of course, not just an issue for MPs. They may occasionally be opinion-shapers, but they're also so often opinion-seekers, desperately trying to speak the language they think the majority (so often the slimmest and most precarious of majorities) of the country want to hear. We are a deeply divided country, and the fact that politicians of all shades pander to the so-called 'squeezed middle', and marginalise and stigmatise those on the lowest incomes, only highlights the problem. What can we do about it? The brilliantly practical, passionately 'heart-broken' blog post last week from Sara Kewly is a great place to start - but it's for the people who already care, who are, like us, already heart-broken. What about the rest? What is going to challenge the 'divide and rule' politics of the professional politicians, and the finger-pointing casual fascism of the Daily Mail and its ilk?

Community Organising

Community Organising is one 'way forward'. In another superb discussion piece from the past week, Cormac Russell and friends from the ABCD Europe network remind us that collective, direct action can be the 'opening of the door' to negotiation and building a shared vision, the shared 'Yes' to which the Bretherton quote points. As Cormac puts it so persuasively:

"the biggest challenge then for our leaders and us, is not to organize the protest of all protests, or in framing the heads of negotiation for a better social contract, or even to orate the grandest of all dreams. It is in the slow, and humble convening of a conversation where every voice can be heard, including the ones that don’t share our ‘dream’, until a shared vision can be hued from the confusion, frustration, conscientization, possibilities and potential, that combine to make us who we are."

Here in Birmingham, the building of a broad-based alliance of schools, trade unions and faith-based organisations is not just about growing a power base that those 'in power' will not be able to ignore - it is about bridging those divides on which those 'in power' often subtly depend. It is not just about building a new kind of 'Opposition' - it is about building a new kind of society in the process.

Re-defining 'work'

But we need to push our imaginations further. Perhaps it is not just MPs who should work part-time and spend part of their week outside their comfort zones. In this job-strapped society, perhaps we really could limit the working week for all, share the work around, and lure people into civic engagement with their newly-found 'spare time'? Those at the bottom of the income ladder would need to be paid a decent living wage of course. And those at the 'top' would discover, through time banking perhaps, that an hour of their time is worth no more - but also no less - than an hour of the time of those who clean their offices and make their coffees. Perhaps we might also be able to more explicitly 'value' the time given by so many to caring: for children, for elderly relatives, for friends and relatives with illnesses and disabilities, for neighbours, for their communities, for the environment we all share...? Perhaps we might be weaned off our addiction to 'paid work' as the only solution for human idleness and society's poverty, and - as I've suggested before here - broaden the definition of 'work' to include everything that makes for a livelihood, nurtures healthy and supportive relationships, and enables discovery and growth in 'vocation'?

At a wedding of a friend and colleague yesterday, full of wonderful people who care deeply about their neighbours, their communities and their world, I got into a conversation with an old friend about 'the welfare problem'. What do we do with the young men that he works with, in their late teens and early 20s, who, challenging backgrounds and unpromising contexts notwithstanding, can't see the point of getting up before mid-day because the JSA they're on gives them a comfortable disposable income? Beyond the simplistic 'carrot or stick' question, how do we crack it? My friend's first suggestion was to ban X Factor, Who Wants to Be a Millionnaire, and any other TV programme that seduces us into imagining the 'lifestyle of our dreams' will simply fall into our lap. My immediate thought was that we might also need to ban all those people who fill the so-called 'news', for whom the 'lifestyle of our dreams' has, in fact, very much fallen into their laps - including many of our politicians, bankers and 'celebrities' - simply because of where, and to whom, they were born.

'Aspiration' - but not as we know it

But just as pernicious is the 'a' word so beloved of our professional politicians, all heirs of Thatcher: the aspiration of the individual, the aspiration for 'social mobility' (always 'upward') - not the aspiration for a different kind of society. And that is what we really, desperately need now. Not a 'Big' society, that patches up public services cuts with voluntary action, while the private sector creams off the profit-making bits. But a more connected, empathetic society, where we are encouraged, and enabled, to 'walk in each other's shoes' as a routine part of life - and where the first thing we ask of politicians is who they are listening to (and, incidentally, where Iain Duncan-Smith tries to live on £53 a week and realises, as he fails to do so, that no one in the UK can, for any sustained length of time, with even the most basic level of well-being). And a more citizen-led society, where we regularly hold our politicians to account with not just the ballot box, but in conversations at the school gate, and the Job Centre, and the local supermarket; and where the first question we ask of public services is not how much they cost, but how they are supporting local people to build healthy, flourishing communities for themselves.

We need a new kind of 'Opposition' urgently. And if Her Majesty's Opposition are not going to provide it, then the people of the so-called United Kingdom are going to have to do it ourselves.

[1] Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics, Chichester: John Wiley, 2010, p.79