Wednesday, 29 November 2017
Faith in Politics?
The book is largely a description of the policies she introduced to reduce social and economic inequality in Islington. It also includes examples of some community-led initiatives to address economic inequality, such as the Quaker project ‘Abolish Empty Office Buildings’ in Bristol and the Quaker Living Wage Campaign. Catherine also gives some recommendations for national government policies to reduce inequality in the areas of work, housing, debt, child services and public safety. Many of these recommendations involve returning more powers to local authorities, such as enabling Councils to borrow money for housebuilding.
One of the key initiatives adopted by Islington Council under Catherine’s leadership was the appointment of the UK’s first Fairness Commission, which consulted widely with the local community to shape Islington’s strategy for reducing inequality. This approach has since inspired many other fairness commissions across the UK. The commission’s first recommendation was to tackle income inequality by encouraging local employers to pay the ‘real’ Living Wage. This is a minimum rate of pay calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, based on the actual cost of living (currently £8.75 per hour or £10.20 in London), which is significantly higher than the statutory so-called ‘National Living Wage’. Islington Council was able to use its considerable financial and political influence to make striking advances towards this goal, including requiring Council contractors and grant recipients to pay all of their staff the Living Wage.
Catherine describes her controversial decision to fund a pay increase for Council cleaners by cutting the salary of the Council chief executive role by £50,000 (to a mere £160,000), as an example of the need to “level down” top rates of pay as well as “levelling up” the lowest. She also cites several Quaker organisations as particularly good examples of more equal pay differentials (the ratio of lowest to highest paid employees within an organisation). Friends House has a pay differential of 1:4 and Woodbrooke’s is 1:3, compared to the Co-operative Group at 1:47.
Catherine’s commitment and dedication to improving the lives of people in disadvantaged communities is very evident throughout this book. For anyone who is tempted to dismiss all politicians as self-interested or indifferent to ordinary people, this is a welcome reminder that all MPs are very far from the same.
While the book is rich in the concrete detail of practical initiatives for reducing inequality, it has much less to offer readers who are looking for reflection on alternative economic models or the spiritual roots of Quaker testimony. Given that many Friends are exploring more radical economic ideas such as a Citizen’s Income, land taxation or a steady-state economy, some may be disappointed by Catherine’s relatively mainstream economic thinking.
In fairness, it is not Catherine’s intention to offer a radical critique of capitalism or economic growth. She is an unashamedly pragmatic politician, who aims at achievable goals through gradual improvements and the art of compromise. She offers a tongue-in-cheek illustration of her approach in the form of a chant, “What do we want? Gradual change! When do we want it? In due course!”
For me, a more significant absence is the relative lack of reflection on the nature of our testimony to equality, especially given the book’s subtitle ("A testimony to equality"). Catherine describes her motivation to advance the cause of equality as “both a political imperative and a spiritual vocation” and cites the “Quaker belief” in “that of God in everyone” as meaning that “every life is equal and holy”. Beyond this, there is very little discussion of the spiritual significance of economic inequality for Quakers, and how we might be led as a community to respond to it.
It may seem self-evident that Quakers will consider economic inequality a bad thing, and be motivated to oppose it based on our testimony to equality. Throughout most of our history, however, it has been far from obvious to most Quakers that economic inequality is a problem in itself. Most of the Quaker practices that are usually lumped together under the “testimony of equality”, such as the rejection of flattering forms of speech, refusal to doff hats to social “superiors”, opposition to slavery, prison reform and support for refugees, have had little to do with economic inequality. They were primarily challenges to laws and conventions that gave some social groups greater status and significance than others.
Recognition of the harmful consequences of economic inequality is a relatively recent development among Quakers, who have in the past concentrated far more on the philanthropic relief of poverty than challenging excessive concentrations of wealth. The “testimony of equality” does not provide a reason for this new sensitivity, because all of the testimonies are just handy labels for a collection of diverse Quakers practices, rather than fundamental grounds for action. Instead, the basis of all Quaker testimony is the practice of discernment within Quaker communities. It is practices such as Quaker worship, Meetings for Worship for Business, Meetings for Clearness or Experiment with Light that enable us to discern the inward “promptings of love and truth” that provide the springs of motivation for action in the world. These leadings to action are specific to our particular gifts and contexts rather than generalised principles. It is through individual Friends and Meetings becoming sensitised to the leadings of the Inward Guide in our own particular circumstances that Quaker testimony develops into new areas of concern and action.
There seems to be a growing awareness among Friends today of a leading to work for greater equality of economic conditions in our society. These attempts at social change will only be effective if we become able to tell a different story about the purpose and possibility of human community. Even among progressive politicians, discussions of society and the economy too often accept the dominant culture’s story of human beings as isolated individuals competing for scarce resources. A transformative politics needs to speak to the heart and imagination, to hold out the possibility of human community based on encounter and relationship, which enriches the whole of society by enabling every person’s gifts and leadings to flourish. Economic equality is crucial to the realisation of this kind of society, as Catherine suggests, when she argues persuasively that “more equal societies are not just more productive; they are happier, have lower levels of depression and suicide, show fewer signs of status competition, and exhibit more peaceful psychology. A world that is more equal economically would be a world that is spiritually better balanced as well.”
Posted by Craig Barnett