Saturday, October 04, 2008

Harry Potter and the Political Donation

I saw in the news recently (ish ... ok, I’m getting behind) that JK Rowling has donated a million pounds to the Labour party. More interestingly, she explained why here. I quote in full:

"I believe that poor and vulnerable families will fare much better under the Labour Party than they would under a Cameron-led Conservative Party. Gordon Brown has consistently prioritised and introduced measures that will save as many children as possible from a life lacking in opportunity or choice. The Labour government has reversed the long-term trend in child poverty, and is one of the leading EU countries in combating child poverty. David Cameron's promise of tax perks for the married, on the other hand, is reminiscent of the Conservative government I experienced as a lone parent. It sends the message that the Conservatives still believe a childless, dual-income, but married couple is more deserving of a financial pat on the head than those struggling, as I once was, to keep their families afloat in difficult times."

There was a time when I had real questions about the policies which JKR highlights. As a Christian, I have pretty strong views on the value of marriage. I believe (as does anyone who looks at the evidence) that a proper marriage (which means a man and a woman) is the best place to conceive and bring up children. I also fully believe in the biblical view that divorce is pretty much never the right thing (not least because that’s what Jesus says, and who am I to tell God he’s wrong?) There is a large part of the Labour party which would disagree with me on those views (but certainly not all of it), and I have a real problem with that.

But I still believe that of the choices available, the Labour party is much closer to God’s heart than the Conservatives, and JKR’s statement goes a long way to explaining why. You see, in God’s eyes, the question isn’t who best deserves a handout from the government; it’s who most needs it. It was not for the righteous (let alone the self-righteous) that Jesus came and died, but for the unrighteous, and to call sinners to repentence.

For how many people, honestly, can the married tax allowance have made the difference between divorce or working a relationship through? Between marriage and cohabitation – or more likely promiscuity? Maybe a handful. Most of the time, the policy simply gives money to people who are already better off than if they were single. Encouraging marriage is a noble cause, but for the effect it has, a married tax allowance is not a great use of government money. By contrast, giving money to poor people with children - married or not – makes a real difference to the lives of everyone concerned, particularly the children, and at a time when they really need help. It’s quite possible that the financial help given to new parents may do more to save their relationships and therefore promote marriage than the married tax allowance ever did.

But the focus of the Labour party’s policies hasn’t been on poor adults – it’s been on poor children. Children cannot help how many parents they have, nor by how hard their parents work. There may be a "moral hazard" in looking after the poor, but that moral hazard does not apply to children, as they can do very little to affect their own situation. And anyway, the concept of moral hazard - so important to right-wingers - is not something that should colour Christian thinking. It's not that it's not a valid concept - it accurately describes the fallen nature of humanity. But the only references you’ll find to it in the Bible are where we are explicitly commanded not to act in such a way. Hence the injunction that the Israelites should not reduce the value of property knowing that a year of jubilee was coming, and Paul’s comment that "should I sin more, so that grace may increase? By no means!" Yes, some people will take advantage of our good nature, but the Bible is absolutely clear that this should not discourage us from being helpful to others. If anything, the opposite: if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. Because it is God who holds people to account for their actions - not us.

The reason why child poverty – or rather, poverty in families with children – is so important is that being brought up poor is so limiting to life opportunity. Yes, people can climb out of poverty. But it’s wrong to presume (as most right-wing thinking does) that if one person can escape depravation and make something of their life, then everyone can, and therefore that the poor are only ever so because of their own laziness. It takes exceptional drive and ability to do this, and few people are fortunate enough to be born like that. It is not enough to be able to point to a handful of people like JKR or Damon Buffini who have conquered adversity and therefore to claim that we live in a culture of equal opportunity. What the Labour government stands for (or should) more than anything is sweeping away a system which means that a child’s prospects in life are still largely determined by the income of its parents.

And that’s the nub. The thing the right-wing fear most is to see the children of those they label as poor and therefore feckless getting all the same opportunities that they work so hard to give their own pandered progeny. Which is what God wants more than anything. Once again, I am reminded of that fantastic prophesy of Jeremiah’s: No longer will it be said, the parents have eaten a sour grape and the children’s teeth are set on edge. Instead, everyone will die for his own sin, and whoever has eaten a sour grape, his own teeth will be set on edge. That is the heart of God.

The last thing God wants is that sinners get what they deserve. Why else did Jesus die? The politics of the right is all about the preservation of wealth and inequality. The politics of the left is about equality of opportunity and giving people a chance to start again. It is the politics of Christ.


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