The mistake of Corbyn’s opponents

What is the job of a Leader of the Opposition? From the comments of Jeremy Corbyn’s critics, you might think that it involves appearing calmly respectable for five years and then winning an election. They insist that Corbyn cannot do this.

What they don’t mention is that Corbyn would spend the five years leading opposition to the government – something which his opponents seem reluctant to do.

It is clear that Tony Blair and certain others on the right of Labour would prefer to see Labour lose an election than see it in government under Jeremy Corbyn. In other words, they would rather have a Tory government than a socialist one. To be fair, not all of them share this outlook but they repeatedly tell us that Labour needs a “moderate” leader if the Tories are to be defeated.

This is outrageously patronising. Those of us who oppose the Tories are expected to sit on our hands for five years, looking forward to the day when Cameron’s cabinet of cuts-crazy millionaires is replaced with a government that will be slightly better while leaving the economic system basically unchanged.

I accept that Corbyn would have less chance of leading Labour to an election victory than Burnham, Cooper or Kendall. The establishment – including the right-wing press – would go all-out to attack someone who really does pose a threat to their power and wealth, rather than just wanting to tweak around the edges. Despite this, I still want Corbyn to win. This is because we need to resist the government now. We need to take every opportunity to defeat their policies. With the Tories continuing their class war on the poorest people in society, we cannot wait five years until we fight back.

I am not a Labour member and will not be voting in this leadership election. But I am prepared to work with people from many parties and none to resist austerity.

The Tories have a majority of twelve. With the help of a few rebellious Tory backbenchers, there is a real possibility of defeating the government at least occasionally in parliamentary votes. Such occasions are more than symbolic. When the John Major government lost a vote on VAT on fuel, there was a real effect on the lives of many struggling to heat their houses. When Ed Miliband took his stand against the bombing of Syria, Parliament prevented another use of British troops in acts of mass killing.

Corbyn would lead real attempts to defeat government policies in Parliament. While Cooper, Burnham or even Kendall might do so occasionally, their abstentions in the recent welfare vote reveal their general caution. How much opposition would they really be leading?

More importantly, Jeremy Corbyn is a strong supporter of grassroots resistance to capitalism and war. He has long backed campaigns in streets, communities and workplaces as well as in Parliament and the media. People engaged in protests, strikes and nonviolent direct action could be be broadly united with the leadership of the opposition in Parliament. The other three candidates, on the other hand, would be likely to follow Ed Miliband’s lead of distancing themselves from grassroots activism.

We do not have to wait for five years. We can resist austerity and war now. We can work to build a better, more equal, more peaceful world. On the streets, in the media, in our jobs and in the House of Commons, we can resist and change this rotten system.

Many of us – both inside and outside the Labour Party – will keep on resisting the system, whoever wins this leadership election. But it will be a great help to have a Leader of the Opposition who actually leads some opposition.

My new book: The Upside-Down Bible

I am delighted to report that my third book is now available to order. It will be published in November. I’m very grateful to everyone who has helped me with the writing process – both practically and emotionally.

It’s called The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence. It will be published by Darton, Longman & Todd.

The book explores the teachings of Jesus in short chapters that can be used for personal reading or group study. It is “upside-down” because each chapter begins by drawing on the insights of non-Christian readers who are new to the text in question. It also seeks to challenge interpretations that have grown out of Christianity’s links with wealth and power. Instead, it  emphasises that Jesus spoke with people about their everyday lives.

You can order the book, priced £9.99, by clicking here and visiting the publisher’s website. Of course, you can also request it at your local bookshop.

The courses I’ll be teaching from September

For the last two years, I have been teaching for the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and I’m looking forward to doing so again from September. Please click on the links below for more information:

Britain’s Overlooked History – Thursday evenings in Oxford, September – December 2015

Ethics in the World Today – Monday afternoons in Finchley, September – December 2015

Britain and the Wider World – Wednesday mornings in Ruislip, September 2015 – April 2016

Religion in the World Today – Thursday evenings in Oxford, January – April 2016

The courses are open to almost any adult, although it’s advisable to book in advance in case they get full. They are free to people on income-related benefits.

If you have any questions about the course content, please feel free to drop me a line at symonhill@gmail.com.

Busy being mad

It’s a while since I last blogged. I’m not egotistical enough to imagine that there are people waiting with baited breath for my next post, but I thought I would offer a short explanation for my absence.

The first reason is that I am very busy with various bits of work. I have been working on my third book, The Upside-Down Bible, which will be published in November by Darton, Longman & Todd. I have also been editing pacifist writings from the first world war for the next instalment of the White Feather Diaries, a Quaker-run online project.

However, there is a second reason for my blogging silence. I have been really quite ill. I have recurrent mental health problems and they have been particularly bad over the last few months. I think things are now improving slightly, but it’s always difficult to say. Trying to keep on top of work while wrestling with mental ill-health has naturally led to my getting behind with things, which in itself has made things more difficult – and so on.

It’s not easy to write about my mental health problems, even though I mention them quite often. I sometimes receive praise for being open about them. I appreciate the encouragement of those who make these sort of comments but I sometimes suspect that part of what I am being praised for is the ability to mention these issues in a calm manner. Most people who I meet have never seen me in the middle of a major OCD-induced panic attack. People who do experience this are likely to be freaked out or at least struggle to know how to respond. There is no blame in that. I would have no idea about how to respond to many other health conditions.

So I am all the more grateful for the many people who have supported me lately – friends who have given me lots of time and emotional support, acquaintances and colleagues who have been understanding and patient, strangers who have been friendly and offered kind words.

No individual could ever be as mad as the political and economic systems under which we live. No-one can be as dysfunctional as a world that leaves millions to starve despite having enough food to feed everyone. Nothing can be as delusional as attempts to defeat violence with violence, hatred with hatred or greed with money. This is a twisted world, and it twists us with it.

Thankfully, not everything is so bad: there is kindness, there is compassion, there is the ability to disagree. There is an alternative. There is a different power – and a different sort of power – to the powers of greed, selfishness and abuse which hold sway over so many areas of life. We can glimpse this power in all sorts of ways, from small moments of kindness to global campaigns against injustice. I have faith that this power will ultimately triumph, though I don’t blame anyone for finding this hard to believe.

How the Church of England profits from the arms trade

Pope Francis last week attacked the “duplicity” of those who profit from the arms trade but “call themselves Christian”. Meanwhile, St Paul’s Cathedral in London has adopted a policy of refusing to host events sponsored by arms companies. Guildford Cathedral took up a similar policy some time ago, cancelling a booking at short notice when they realised that it was for an arms industry event.

It seems that none of this has made any impact on Church House, the administrative headquarters of the Church of England, which is next to Westminster Abbey. This week it will again host a conference sponsored by arms companies – and profit from their business.

The ‘Land Warfare Conference‘ will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday (30 June and 1 July). Its sponsors include Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s biggest arms companies. Lockheed arms one some of the world’s most oppressive regimes, including Bahrain and Egypt. The company makes Trident missiles for the US (and loaned by the UK government). Lockheed also provides the Israeli government with F-16 aircraft and Hellfire missiles, used in attacks on civilians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

For the last two and a half years, Church House has been dismissing objections to its arms industry conferences, despite protests from within the Church of England and beyond.

Their first line of defence was to claim that the Church House Conference Centre was separate from Church House. Along with other campaigners, I have looked into this claim in some detail. It turns out that the Conference Centre is a wholly owned subsidiary business of the Church House Corporation, whose directors include the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. The separation is a legal technicality.

Church House are now trying to rely on the argument that the booking for the conference is not made by an arms company but by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a military thinktank. This is disingenuous. RUSI’s website makes clear that these conferences are sponsored by arms companies. Alongside Lockheed Martin, sponsors of this week’s event include MBDA Missile Systems (whose weapons were used on all sides in the Libyan civil war) and L3, owners of MPRI a “private military and security company” (or mercenaries, as they’re usually known).

Chris Palmer, secretary of the Church House Corporation recently claimed that:

“The conferences held at Church House by the Royal United Services Institute, an academic body respected throughout the world for its consideration and debate of defence and security issues, are perfectly legitimate and certainly do not breach any ethical stance taken by the Church of England.”

Whether or not RUSI is respected, it is certainly not unbiased. It lobbies for high military spending and promotes the arms industry. If you want to glimpse of the reality of RUSI, have a glance at the front page of the RUSI website, currently featuring a picture of them giving an award to the war criminal Henry Kissinger. Another picture features a celebration of the Duke of Wellington, who backed the use of troops to crush peaceful demonstrations.

But whatever we think of RUSI, Chris Palmer clearly finds it easier to focus on RUSI than on arms companies themselves. His comment deliberately ignores the fact that the conference is sponsored by arms dealers, whoever it is who made the booking.

In contrast, St Paul’s Cathedral has the wisdom to rule out “bookings, or sponsorship of bookings” from any company making more than ten percent of its money from the arms trade.

This is in line with the Church of England’s own ethical investment policy. The Church of England would not buy shares in Lockheed Martin, so why will it profit from it in other ways?

Chris Palmer said that the body that manages the Church’s investments has no connection to Church House and that therefore, “I cannot comment on its ethical stance”. He cannot, it seems, comment on why it has a higher ethical stance than Church House.

Chris Palmer’s comments were made in a letter to Richard Bickle, chair of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR), who had written to him to raise objections to hosting arms dealers’ conferences. FoR is a long-standing Christian pacifist network. It is not only pacifists who object to these events at Church House. Others oppose them because they do not want to support companies that arm dictators and they do not want the Church to be making profit from the business of such companies.

As Christians, we do not hate arms dealers. We seek to love and forgive them. I for one know that I am just as sinful as an arms dealer, and that I need God’s forgiveness. I do not object to an arms dealer entering a church building. I would not have a problem with Church House hosting a debate on the arms trade (as long as it was not sponsored by arms companies), in which arms dealers were challenged and allowed to challenge others.

But this is not what is happening at Church House this week. This is about making money from the arms trade and giving it moral legitimacy.

FoR has been joined by groups including the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), Pax Christi and Christians for Economic Justice to call on Church House to adopt an ethical lettings policy and throw out the arms industry. Hundreds if not thousands of Christians, including Church of England clergy, have written to Church House to raise their objections.

Church House’s leadership, however, are not even engaging with the issues. As we can see from Chris Palmer’s quote above, they talk of the formal booking and ignore the issue of sponsorship. They have dismissed polite letters, ignored criticism in the media and refused to acknowledge that there is anything to talk about. Last year, security staff at Westminster Abbey tried to stop us from peacefully singing hymns as we held a vigil outside one of Church House’s arms dealers’ conferences. I cannot believe that everyone working for Church House shares these high-handed attitudes, but our polite appeals to reason are being met with rudeness and arrogance.

At 8am tomorrow (Tuesday 30 June), Christians and others will gather outside Church House for a nonviolent vigil and act of worship. A Church of England priest will lead us in Holy Communion. This is entirely appropriate. Communion is a memorial and a celebration of Jesus, who was tortured to death by the oppressive Roman Empire after his nonviolent activism. As a Christian, I have faith that Jesus rose again, heralding the eventual defeat of the unjust powers of this world.

Perhaps the Church House authorities expect our campaign to fade out, or to continue only as a minor irritant. If they do think this, they won’t be thinking it for long.

Don’t keep calm. Don’t carry on.

As I write, it is unclear whether the Conservatives will have an overall majority. If not, I suspect they will try to rule as a minority government, although they may try some sort of deal. In the latter case, they could well be defeated in Parliament on at least some issues. In the former, they will still be vulnerable to rebellion from their own fractious backbenchers.

Either way, let us remember that politics is about far, far more than parties, elections and polling days. We need to resist the plans for a massive extra £12bn in welfare cuts, the privatisation of the National Health Service, the ongoing attacks on education and the welfare state, the fuelling of climate change, the sale of arms to tyrants and the plans to throw £100 bn into a new generation of weapons of mass destruction.

It is tempting to run away and hide. So I’m trying to remind myself that we can resist such policies in Parliament, through fresh ideas, in the media, on the streets, in our workplaces, in our communities and faith groups and places of education, through strikes, through protests, through nonviolent direct action and in our daily lives.

Politics is about people. It belongs to us, not to politicians. The election circus is nearly over, but real politics continues well beyond #GE2015.