After intense politics in the Caribbean as a Church leader, I never imagined that I would be attending a political Party Conference in the UK. But there I was from September 24-25 in the thick of the Autumn Conference of the Liberal Democrats in Brighton as one of the “Church Leaders” of the Free Churches’ contingent. The Free Churches have been attending Party Conferences for the last ten years. It was my first such Conference as a moderator of General Assembly. Blustery weather aside, with the occasional struggle for the sun to peep out so one can at least see the sea and breathe in the salt air, it was a delightful experience. I am impressed by the amount of energy, organisation, thought and appropriate briefing that went into it by the staff of the Free Churches, included our own Frank Kantor and Wendy Cooper.
On the evening of Friday 24th the team met over dinner with our specially invited guest, Lord David Shutt (also active in the Society of Friends) who took us through life for the Liberal Democrats in a coalition government. But most importantly he provided us with some good insights into a variety of ways that the Church can use parliamentary processes, politicians and Peers to raise key issues and get the voice of Churches early into political debates. His emphasis on the importance of timing and nurturing the habit of “going upstream” were two top tips! Later that evening members of the Free Church team were briefed on the meetings of the next day, who would be “fronting” the conversations with those MP’s who were available to meet with us and the key questions we should consider exploring with them. For a first timer like me, I found most helpful the brief biographies of those we met and other briefing papers that the Free Church Staff prepared in advance.
Tuesday September 25th started very early with a prayer breakfast from 8.00am organised by the LibDem Christian Forum meeting at the Brighthelm URC Centre. The speaker was Steve Webb MP on the theme of “Income Inequality in Challenging Times”. A brilliant speaker and a Christian, he shared openly with the group his struggle to “sleep” at nights given his work in the areas of Pensions and Benefits where cuts were necessary. One sensed a genuine heart for justice and a real struggle having to reduce spending and especially its impact on benefits. The question and answer time that followed was very robust! We again met David Webb, as well as David Laws and Andrew Stunell in the main Conference Centre to discuss other significant concerns. They were all engaging and honest in their listening and responses. Others were unable to meet us but will do so after the Conference. The impression I got from our meeting with MP’s of the Liberal Democrats and our robust engagement, is one of respect, serious consideration to our questions, a willingness to listen and good suggestions of ways to continue some of these conversations. My observation is that they (a marginal political voice, though in a coalition) found an affinity in the Free Churches contingent (also a marginal ecclesial group).
It was a different scenario, however, in the main Conference Centre where a couple of us listened to the speech of Danny Alexander. It was an unimpressive and uninspiring show. I also found his “in-jokes” excluding and got the impression it was for his ministerial colleagues sitting in the front rows! My colleague and I felt that in the Conference Hall, there was a subdued atmosphere. It may be that while some LibDems seem to delight in the coalition, they are still struggling to make a transition from “opposition” to sharing in governance where compromise is necessary in “politics for national interest”. And it can be that with General Elections not so far away they are beginning to grapple with what they can offer to voters as distinctively of the LibDem!
Two thoughts from Steve Webb underscore for me the significance of our visible presence (with collars, ties, crosses) trying to have conversations in crowded and noisy foyers and around tables and wherever we could locate and “hustle” seats to meet the MP’s. The first is related to his invitation that the church should continue to pray that their (politicians) motives and motivation be for the right purpose. And the other was his “spot on” view that in the Public Square the church must not only be affirming, but always a prophetic voice challenging on behalf of the most vulnerable!
In the meantime, while Val Morrison heads over for the Labour Conference, I am busy contemplating whether a Pin Striped Suit will match and sit comfortably with my clerical shirt as I gear up for the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham!