The morning after the deputy leader of the Labour Party called a number of her fellow citizens “scum”, the leader of the Labour Party spoke at a church service in Brighton, the theme of which was “love thy neighbour”.
As an atheist, and as someone who had to apologise the last time he went to church after its leaders were accused of carrying out “exorcisms” on gay people, you might have thought this would be a tough gig. And yet it wasn’t.
The theme was deliberately chosen so he could reflect on the way local communities had pulled together during the pandemic: “One of the things I’ve been profoundly struck by in the last 18 months is the fact that people have looked out for each other in a way I haven’t seen in my lifetime.” And he thanked people of faith for playing their part in all this. “I may not believe in God, but I do believe in faith,” as he once explained. Christians, he said on Sunday, were the Labour Party’s “moral compass”.
But the “love thy neighbour” story is a good deal more morally challenging than Keir Starmer seems to realise. For it is not a moral tale designed to celebrate social togetherness; it is supposed to challenge the listener to think about who their neighbour might be. And this is the message that appears to be lost on Angela Rayner.
After all, the point of the Good Samaritan story is that the audience hated Samaritans. They were “scum”. Too often this story is simply taken to be a heart-warming moral tale of helping others in a time of need — hence Starmer’s words about our coming together in the pandemic, with references to food banks and so on.
That’s all good and fine. But the parable’s purpose is not to make us all feel good about ourselves. It is the “scum” that acts with compassion, while the morally righteous pass by on the other side of the road. Applied to the Labour conference, the story should be renamed “the Good Tory”.
And here we reach the heart of the Labour Party’s problem with voters. It believes far too much in its own virtue — and so gives itself the licence to disparage its opponents in any way it likes. They are “scum”, we are the righteous. They deserve it.
At the end of Sunday’s church service, Starmer was presented with a copy of Graham Dale’s God’s Politicians: The Christian Contribution to 100 years of Labour. It is a “contribution” which has historically been fundamental to the success of the Left — arguably even more so than to the Right — but has been on the wane following the decline of Christianity.
Theologically, the Christian contribution to the Labour movement has rested on one fundamental idea: that what used to be called the “brotherhood of man” was rooted in “the Fatherhood of God”. To claim that all human beings are children of the same heavenly Father is to establish a deep ontological equality between all people and readily serves as the basis for a politics of social justice. But while this basic religious assumption can be harnessed as a powerful defence against divisive forces of social change — most notably certain forms of unbridled capitalism — it can just as much be used to express our fundamental connectedness with people with whom we passionately disagree.
In other words, the Fatherhood of God cuts both ways: it serves as the basis for food banks and better social security, but it also resists the dehumanisation of those some might label “scum”. It is no coincidence that churches are perhaps still the most socially diverse gatherings in the country.
But social justice has come to mean something else to the modern Labour Party. Justice is a complicated word in Christian ethics because theologians have long recognised that it can have a persecutory flavour. In many ways “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is the epitome of justice in so far as the punishment is proportionate to the crime.
Starmer spoke proudly yesterday of his former life in the Crown Prosecution Service. The scales of justice that hang over the Courts of Justice in which he plied his trade speak precisely to this sense of balance — the punishment fitting the crime. But without being tempered by mercy, justice alone can lead to a kind of revenge mentality in which retribution is cheered and celebrated. This is especially prevalent among those who are convinced of their own righteousness. Which is why, generally speaking, I fear people’s virtues far more than their vices.
Martin Luther famously had a complete about turn in his theology when he recognised that he actually hated the idea of a just God, because if God was just — and so treated people according to their just deserts — then we would all be lost. Polonius says to Hamlet: “My Lord, I will use them according to their desert.” Hamlet replies: “God’s bodykins, man… use every man after his desert and who should ‘scape whipping?” From this perspective, we are all wrong-un’s, in need of forgiveness.
And so social justice — unmoored from the Christian belief in forgiveness and a society rooted in the Fatherhood of God — can easily turn into something that most of us might legitimately fear. After all, who of us would escape a whipping were the extent of our social sins exposed? That is why I — and I suspect I am not alone — am terrified at the prospect of angry people such as Angela Rayner gaining a whiff of real power. I fear that what they call justice many of us would experience as persecution. We would become scum.
That isn’t to say, as the great theologian Stanley Hauerwas once commented, that just because we should love our enemies we shouldn’t have any. Yes, there is struggle and political contest. Yes, there must be passion. But justice warriors must also recognise in their opponents something inherent in all of us — we are all potentially loveable, all fallen. When Labour violates this basic human solidarity out of a heightened sense of their own righteousness, voters rightly flee. Because the fear is that it’s Labour that has now become the nasty party.