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Chris Bryant counsels against conceding the turf of morality to the Tories and reminds us of the contribution of radical Christians to an ethical socialism.

unctuous preaching politicians are every bit as unpleasant and dangerous as fundamentalist sectarians. The sins of self-righteous pride are writ large in both. So it is little wonder that even though we have (unbelievably) retained our two established churches (England and Scotland), poll after poll suggests that the British do not want more overtly religious politicians. Indeed Britain has always been very leary about intermingling our religion and our politics.

For most democrats there has been an added reason for distrusting politicians who wear their faith on their sleeve and use it for electoral advantage. Sectarian bigotry has been the scourge not just of Ireland, but of the world and because such bigotry has often put its roots down in religious soil many people in rejecting the vicious divisions that it can bring have rejected religion as well. Moreover the apparent appropriation of Christianity by the Religious Right in the US, with its promotion of prosperity teaching (wealth is a sign of Gods love so the rich are by definition good) and its obsessively fundamentalist stance on family values, abortion and sexuality, has brought Christianity into a form of disrepute with most sane-thinking democratic socialists however much we may admire radical bishops like Desmond Tutu, David Jenkins and David Sheppard.

So most democratic socialists have ambivalent feelings about morality and religion.

But democratic socialism is essentially a moral creed, an ethical proposition that stands or falls not by some scientific measure, but by the consistency with which it is advocated, the respect it can command, the strength of its moral argument. What is that argument? For me it has always been a conviction that grinding poverty and gross inequality are offensive because they mar the humanity in all of us. Since we humans are by our very nature social animals who depend on one another, we should try to order society in a way that makes it easier for everyone to lead fulfilled lives.

The difficulty is that I cannot prove this. I can only feel it and believe it. I can prove that paying millions of people to remain unemployed is an expensive and inefficient business. I can prove that poverty poor health, inadequate nutrition and bad housing kills people. I can prove that the gap between rich and poor is widening after years of going in the other direction. I can prove that poor pay leads to de-motivated staff. I reckon I can even prove that humans are social animals and that we achieve more by working together than we can on our own. After all we learn languages to communicate, we develop institutions to provide security and the worst form of punishment is solitary confinement.

However, what I cannot prove without appealing to some moral, ethical, conscientious sensitivity is that grinding poverty and gross inequality are offensive. Which is why socialism is essentially not a scientific fact but a moral comment on life and the way we order society.

Norman Lamont subconsciously recognised this a couple of years ago when he argued that all that is left to socialism is the moral high ground as if to suggest that somehow the moral high ground was an irrelevant nicety. It is a common Tory perception. When Robin Cook announced that the new Labour Government was going to pursue an ethical foreign policy, party members started discussing what that would mean a ban on anti-personnel land-mines, an end to arms sales to Indonesia, an adamant refusal to back down on human rights abuses in China and so on. The Tory press, by contrast, derided Cook either for his naivete (pure student union Janet Daley of the Daily Telegraph called it) or for dereliction of his nationalistic duty to secure the best deal for Britain regardless of ethical considerations.

There are other dangers in espousing ethical socialism. The British media delight in their role as judge and jury over the new Labour government. Because Blair and Brown promoted a brand of ethical socialism and because it is unethical to commit adultery, new Labour must be hypocrites if they keep Cook in the Cabinet. So runs the argument, despite the fact that Blair made it abundantly clear before the General Election that Labour was expressly not trying to resurrect a form of the disastrous Back to Basics campaign with its Victorian double standards over sex. Furthermore the well-funded Christian right, who somehow managed to convince themselves that because Blair was prepared to own up to being a Christian he was going to accept their agenda (tax breaks for married couples, clampdown on abortion, homosexuality etc.), are busy crying betrayal, a call that warms the cockles of the average Telegraph readers heart.

This poses a profound difficulty for all modern socialists. If morality can too easily descend into sententious cant, if accusations of hypocrisy almost immediately attend anyone who dares to proclaim an ethical creed and if large chunks of the population believe that morality is entirely irrelevant in politics, what have we to offer? Already Tony Blair, who has on the whole tried to keep his religion to himself and has only ever gone public to my knowledge on two occasions, has felt the need to withdraw from the moral agenda because it is too often misinterpreted as moralistic and the traditional Labour Party conference service (which Attlee, Kinnock and Callaghan all attended) will no longer be open to the press.

This cannot mean that we should abandon ethical socialism. There are several tactical points to be made. The first is quite simply that we should not surrender the whole of the moral argument to do-as-you-will conservatism. Poverty, inequality, injustice are wrong and we should not countenance them.

The second point is that democratic socialism is not about telling people how to live their lives (except in so far as every society outlaws violence, murder, fraud etc). If anything a Labour government should be extending personal freedom. The age of consent, for instance, should be equalised, for the simple moral reason that the State should not treat one person differently from another. Similarly the law should give more protection to personal freedom, guaranteeing a smoke-free work space, imposing a limit on the number of hours employers can make their staff work in a week, guaranteeing a minimum wage. All these legislative changes have been portrayed by the Tories as evidence of the nannying tendency in socialism, but in truth they are just as much about extending personal freedom as is ensuring a decent education for everyone and providing a National Health Service. As Oscar Wilde put it, the true aim of socialism is individualism, not because we want everyone to be an isolated individual greedily pursuing his or her own ends, but because individuals can only fully flourish in a society that is just, where the vulnerable are protected and where the rights of others are recognised as entailing obligations in ourselves. Live and let live may seem a feeble ethic on its own, but allied to a belief in equality and justice it may rescue socialism from the cry of moral authoritarianism.

Thirdly Christianity is not a charter for hypocrites and sectarians. Indeed without radical Christians we should never have had a Labour Party at all.

Indeed it is perhaps ironic that I am writing this on Good Friday, the 150th anniversary of the collapse of the great Chartist demonstration on a sodden Kennington Common on 10 April 1848. For that same night a small band of brothers (they were all 'brothers': the priest/novelist Charles Kingsley, Professor The Revd F D Maurice, the half-French socialist lawyer John Ludlow and later the novelist cum politician Thomas Hughes) started to meet and produce a series of tracts, thereby inaugurating the first Christian Socialism movement. In time they would found the Working Mens College, the Co-operative Wholesale and Retail Societies and the National Health League; and their Christian Socialist successors would not only found the first overtly socialist organisation in Britain (The Guild of St Matthew), but found and lead the Scottish and English Labour Parties (Keir Hardie, George Lansbury, Arthur Henderson) and develop the concept of the welfare state (Archbishop William Temple).

Although the early Christian Socialists held many views that we would now condemn (Kingsley was both a racist and an anti-Catholic bigot), their central conviction still holds true: that true Christianity was being abused and if it could be rediscovered it would be a potent force for social good. Kingsley confessed quite independently of Marx that the Bible was often used as no better than a 'mere special constable's hand-book - an opium dose for keeping beasts of burden patient while they are being overloaded -a mere book to keep the poor in order'. In fact the poor man has his rights, as well as the rich so says the Bible. It says more it says that God inspires the poor with the desire of liberty; that he helps them to their rights.

All of this points to a political agenda that should be shared by ethical socialists of all brands and all faiths and we should fight hard to win the argument for it.

But finally, we should hesitate before we preach, remembering the succinct if revolutionary ethic of Bertolt Brecht:
You gentlemen who think you have a mission
To purge us of our seven deadly sins
Should first sort out the basic food position.
Then start your preaching.
That's where life begins.

Chris Bryant, Chair of the Christian Socialist Movement, is standing for the Labour Party NEC in the constituencies section.

1999