Voting to build a better future
By Bishop John Arnold
Elections used to be a lot simpler than this. Those of us who have been around for a few elections are accustomed to more certain choices – the lines between the parties and the individuals leading them seemed clearer, the vote you cast tended to be part of a decisive choice with very few parliaments left in the balance. It was just easier.
Eighteen-year-olds getting ready to vote for the first time in this election were newborn babies the last time more than two thirds of us turned out on polling day, and they still had three years left of primary school last time a General Election returned a majority government.
Economic difficulty and crisis has swirled around them since they were 11. At home, 18-year-olds are leaving school or college to go to university or find work knowing that they are facing years of debt or uncertainty. They are being told by politicians that they are the first generation for decades that will be worse off than their parents. Overseas, 18-year-olds are growing up in a world that is less stable and more insecure, where their dignity and enormous potential is being wilfully limited by poverty and conflict.
Trust in leaders and so many of the institutions that support our national life – the banks, the BBC, even the Church – has been gradually eroded by scandal and failure. I think these new voters could be forgiven for thinking politics isn’t about them.
If you agree with me that this is tragic and deflating, then join me in believing that we can help.
Politics is about this new generation of voters. In fact, it’s more about them than ever.
The world works in a different way to when I grew up. We might not like it but globalisation has brought us all closer and the forces shaping our lives, the lives of young people in the UK and the lives of the poorest in the world, are systemic; the systems are global and are influenced by political decisions. But it is also true that, however pessimistic we become about politics at home, the UK is still a force for good in the world and still tends to play a positive role in global efforts to help the poor.
That’s one of the reasons why engaging in politics is important. Whoever is in Number 10 after 7th May will have to grapple with some fundamental challenges: how economies at home and overseas work, and who benefits; the future makeup of the UK and our relationship with Europe; how the UK can continue to play a positive role in a world that feels increasingly unstable.
These debates may seem distant to us. What can we as individuals in Salford, Shrewsbury or Swansea do to affect them? But if the UK is at the heart of them the individual MPs can do a lot to shape the role we play. That makes us, as voters and constituents – and especially as Catholics – more influential than we think.
People of faith are called to get involved, to stand up against poverty and injustice; to celebrate and protect the dignity of everyone. The people and politicians I have met through my role as chair of CAFOD give me hope that, despite all the pessimism around politics, there are still plenty of people prepared to work for the common good.
And there is something really interesting happening this time round – people outside the Church really want to know what Christians think.
This is partly because we can offer a positive voice where others don’t, promoting peace, solidarity and dignity in, and a hopeful vision for, the common good. This means even more when it comes in hard times.
It’s also partly because of Pope Francis. His importance to Catholics is obvious, but his impact beyond the Church is very significant. Politicians and diplomats working to tackle poverty and prevent dangerous climate change have been given a huge boost and the moral direction that has been sorely lacking. His forthcoming encyclical must be one of the most widely anticipated in the Church’s recent history.
And ultimately, it’s because the faith communities – Christian and beyond – continue to have an important impact in
society. Whether through moral and practical help for communities in need – running food banks, or counselling – or through campaigning to improve the help that governments offer the poorest. Only last month the 50-year commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on the world’s poorest, delivered in 2013, was protected by new legislation.
What does this mean for us in the weeks before 7th May?
In practical terms, I think it means accepting Pope Francis’ invitation to examine where the poor are in our lives – and inviting our parliamentary candidates to do the same. We do not need to know all the answers. Some of the big questions are complicated and the solutions are not yet clear. It is still important that we are asking the right questions. One question above all: ‘How will you help the poorest and most vulnerable?’
For CAFOD, the right question is about the impact of climate change on the poor. Climate change hits the poorest first and hardest, though they did the least to cause it and are the least well equipped to cope. It is tipping the balance against them through changing seasons and bad harvests. It is also the biggest threat to CAFOD’s efforts, with the extreme and unpredictable weather wiping out years of work helping poor communities. That’s right now. In the next few decades climate change will start to significantly affect everyone – making more extreme weather common, and potentially wiping huge percentages off the global economy. We are the first generation to feel the effects and the last generation who can do something about it.
Whether it’s climate change, poverty or something else, your voice and your vote are to be cherished and this election campaign is a brilliant chance to get involved. When we do that, we will see politicians respond. If we continue to do it – day to day and week to week rather than once every five years – then the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable, and the building of a better future for everyone, will start to feature at the heart of political decisions.
Election campaigns – much like the journey through Lent to the Feast of Easter that Christians have just celebrated – are ultimately stories of who we are; what kind of people and society we want to be; what we hope for. They are about renewal, improve- ment, and a chance to refresh.
This election is about our world and the young people who will inherit it from us. Let us use our vote to help them to face the challenges with hope and determination.
• John Arnold is Bishop of Salford and chair of CAFOD’s board of trustees
• CAFOD is the Catholic Church in England and Wales’ official aid and development charity
This article appears in this weekend’s edition of The Catholic Times, published by The Universe Media Group Ltd.
Picture: ‘Faith communities – continue to have an important impact in society’ – Bishop John Arnold of Salford, chair of CAFOD, pictured in a school during his visit to Gaza last November. Photo: CAFOD