Miriam Brittenden was one of last year’s participants in the Buxton Leadership Programme. Here she reflects on what she has learned – and what these experiences might have to say to our wider polity…
Three months ago, I was sat around a table in my church, sharing a meal with neighbours. It was not just any meal, but a celebration. Somehow (with much prayer and exhaustive campaigning) between us, and many who were not present, we had managed to win 40 affordable homes for our community and a patch of scrubland opposite the church.
As I looked around the room, I was struck by the diversity around me – individuals of all ages (from babies to the elderly), ethnicities, Muslims, Christians, rich, middle class, poor. As different members of the group shared their highlights of their involvement in the campaign, I realised the joy many of us were feeling, was not simply because of the (astonishing) feat we had accomplished in the lands and homes themselves which were to be built, but the community of people that had been nurtured along the way.
As one woman put it ‘I’d never met most of the people in this room if it wasn’t for this campaign’.
My biggest “take home” from the Buxton Leadership programme this year is that we are spiritual beings as much as we are physical, striving for identity, belonging and community. This is something which I think both the left and right are equally guilty of forgetting. Through both placements that I completed this year as party of the programme, I have witnessed first-hand just what a shame this is, since the nurturing of social bonds amongst politically empowered, engaged and authentically diverse but fundamentally united local communities, is just as valuable as the issue they are attempting to challenge, whether that issue be housing or knife crime.
Too often our political debate forgets this and it opts for a transactional approach over a transformative one, preferring to see people as passive recipients to be done for or market consumers, to be done too. Community organising, through the lens of Christianity however says people are inherently precious, made in the image of God, and agents who can act for their own collective good and fulfilment.
Bobby Kennedy said in a speech in 1968 that ‘Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another great task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction, purpose and dignity, that afflicts us all’. Those words couldn’t be truer fifty years later – you only have to look at the raw political divisions which criss-cross the not just the UK, but much of western democracy (both sides of the Atlantic) to see a mass of people crying out for some kind of shared vision which offers more.
Policy makers in Government could learn a great deal from this too. In my role as parliamentary assistant to the Bishop of Durham, I’ve had the privilege of supporting a campaign led by the Bishop to reverse the Government’s decision to limit child tax credits to only two children per family, under Universal Credit. This is a policy with only a transactional, economic vision, whose aim is to reduce costs and move as many people into work as possible. It is a policy which sees the decision to have a child as a purely economic and rational one, a view which undermines the cultural role of motherhood and the family, making the choice to stay at home with children one only reserved for those parents who can afford too, and pushing many more children, who are surely an invaluable good in and of themselves, into poverty.
The second lesson that this year has taught me is that change won’t happen without working with those with whom you disagree. As Adrian Pabst has put it ‘equality is not about making everyone the same, but rather creating equal access to the good life in common’, and in order to create that equal access to that good life, we need to try and understand those who think differently to us. Whilst campaigning to tackle London’s housing crisis, it would be all very well maligning greedy developers or an ineffective, bureaucratic Government and local council that is failing to meet housing demand, but if we weren’t willing to work with these parties, our CLT campaign would ultimately have failed.
Likewise, in the two-child limit campaign, I soon learned that in order to win an argument, and to win a campaign, you need to build relationships with decision makers of all different stripes. The reality is, that with a Conservative government in power, policies won’t shift without conversation with Tories AND Labour, and the other parties (including the DUP!). For each meeting with the Bishop and an MP, it was important to understand where that individual was likely to be coming from, to remember that they are a fellow human, with reasons for living out the politics they live out, to put ourselves in their shoes and perspective, to frame the arguments accordingly and find our common interest. Though there is still a very long way to go with that campaign, we now have already a significant cross-party coalition of MPs who want to work with us on that issue.
Above all, we desperately need a warmer politics, a politics of the common good in which the goal is not flourishing for the minority, or even the majority, but flourishing for all. Shouting or putting up walls, from either side of the fence, gets you nowhere, building relationships across those divides does.
This is not tantamount to ‘selling out’, it is accepting that we live in a world in which we are not all on the same page, where we often fight and disagree, soften with harmful consequences. But the reality is, we are all humans, children of the living God, with hopes, fears, aspirations and stories to tell. When we stop, listen, and work with ‘the other’ whether that be a conservative MP or a mother living in overcrowded social housing, and we trust God, not only do we escape our echo chambers, we begin to discover that maybe another world is possible.
 Adrian Pabst, (2015) ‘Preface’ in Ian Geary & Adrian Pabst (eds.) Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics, London, Tauris & Co. p.xxx