The Revd Dr Simon Cuff is a CTC Research Associate and Curate of Christ the Saviour, Ealing. Here he blogs about the Citizens UK Assembly – the most vibrant event of the election campaign…
At Mass last Sunday, we heard these words from the first epistle of S. John: ‘My children, our love is not to be just words or mere talk, but something real and active’. The next day (May 4th), Citizens UK held its second General Election Accountability Assembly in its 25 year history. At this event, the agenda born out of thousands of conversations with our members would be put to the three party leaders most likely to be in government by way of 5 clear and specific asks (on social care, sanctuary, Just Money, living wage and a commitment to meet regularly with us).
At the first assembly, in 2010, David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown attended the first Citizens UK pre-election assembly. They made commitments to work with members of Citizens UK on certain issues, most notably to bring about an end to the detention of migrant children (which was achieved under the coalition government) and to meet with us at two assemblies over the course of the Parliament.
Fast forward to May 4th 2015, and much has changed. Citizens UK hosted its second assembly but this one was set to be different – a National Prime Ministerial Accountability assembly.
‘National’ because Citizens UK had grown and community-organising is an increasingly national movement (beyond London). Over the course of the Parliament chapters have been set up or are in formation in Nottingham, Leeds, Birmingham, Milton Keynes, Tyne & Wear, Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan.
‘Accountable’ because having met with the leaders of the three main political parties in 2010, Citizens UK was now in a position to hold them to the word, or at least the promises made at that assembly and at meetings since.
Monday’s Assembly was a celebration and demonstration of many things: diversity, faith, humanity, the common good, the role of civil society, and how far community-organising has developed over the last five years.
Most of all, however, it was a celebration and demonstration of accountability – what it means to hold each other to account. Too often, we see accountability simply as a negative activity, shining light on faults and failings, dwelling on broken promises. We saw on Monday how accountability is also a ‘celebration’ (a word used throughout the assembly). When we hold someone to account, we not only point out their failings, we celebrate their achievements.
This feature has been noted in the media since the event. Nick Clegg remarked how strange it was for a politician not simply to be criticised for failing to do something, but to be thanked for what he has helped to achieve. He pointed to this as the most significant feature of community organising and the reason it delivers real change.
It was disappointing that the Prime Minister wasn’t able to be there since this meant it was impossible for members of civil society on this occasion to hold him to account. We could not celebrate his achievement in bringing about the end of child detention or moving forward the living wage with him directly. Nor could his representative Sajid Javid as a Cabinet member make promises that the government will act with us for the common good in the same way as the other two party leaders.
Some of the press coverage has noted how the Assembly seemed to be rather more in favour of Mr Clegg and Mr Miliband than Mr Javid. This imbalance of accountability surely had something to do with it. The reception was warm to all three parties, but the strength of emotion when you’re holding the change-maker to account is different from when you celebrate with a representative. Christians are reminded of this by this season of the liturgical year – when God set about to save humanity, he didn’t leave it to a representative.
Accountability is a two-way street. The work of community organising (like pastoral ministry) is strictly non-partisan. This was made clear throughout the assembly, and, if this is ever in doubt, community organisers can and should be held to account. S. Paul wrote against all partisanship when he complained about partisanship amongst the believers in Corinth: ‘each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’ or ‘I belong to Apollos.’ He recognised the danger of acting solely according to firmly held tribal or party lines, because such allegiance often gets in the way of acting together on a shared purpose.
However, being non-partisan does not mean that we celebrate every politician or party equally all of the time, and it doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes cheer more for one politician or party more than others. What it does mean is that we don’t cheer out of party or tribal loyalty (‘I’m with Cephas!’) but instead when political leaders act in a way that deserves our celebration.
When does this celebration occur? When politicians of whatever stripe act with us for the common good of all our communities. When politicians of whatever stripe act in a way that genuinely meets the needs our communities. And when politicians of whatever stripe not only promise to act in ways that benefit the lives of our communities, but when they actually deliver and we see that their pledges were not ‘just words or mere talk, but something real and active’ – something which has really changed the lives of God’s people for the common good. Whenever and wherever this happens, it deserves celebrating.