Wednesday, 27 September 2017

24 hours in politics

Harold Wilson is supposed to have said once that "a week is a long time in politics"; I am quite sure he was correct, as, having returned late last night after a visit to the Labour Party Conference in Brighton I can't believe I was only there for 28 hours.  I had never been to Brighton before and found it very different from Glasgow (!) - symptomatic, perhaps, of my feeling of entering a brave new world.  As I arrived before the time appointed for the Free Church Leaders' Group to convene, I sat on the sea wall for a few minutes and pondered the vast grey ocean and a little brightness in the sky above - was this how the Labour Party were feeling at this point in time?

All along the seafront there was a sense of something big happening; lots of delegates and others wearing the lanyards which say to the world "I am someone"... so I put mine on too and entered the Conference venue.  If I had been hoping to bump into Jeremy Corbyn or someone else famous and have a little chat I soon realised that this conference was on a different scale from Methodist Conference and that was highly unlikely!  I enjoyed the buzz as I looked around the stalls and paid over the odds for two (admittedly high quality) "For the many" postcards.  Since it was the lunch break, a kind steward allowed me to have a little look in the auditorium (even though my lanyard only said that I was someone who should be admitted to the balcony - not a proper member) then I made my way to the balcony for the opening of the afternoon session.

"Good afternoon Conference" sounded familiar as the chair brought us to order and I was half expecting us to sing a hymn at that point... we didn't, although choruses of "Oh Jeremy Corbyn" rang throughout the chamber whenever he was mentioned or appeared.  Speakers were introduced and business proceeded, again with a sense of familiarity, and I pondered on the shared roots of the Labour Party Conference, Methodist Conference and the Trades Union Congress.  However, when it became clear that there would be opportunity for a number of members to speak, those who wished to do so stood on their chairs waving articles of clothing, umbrellas and flags... until the chair indicated who could come forward; "the woman waving the bright green scarf", "the man jumping up and down on the back row..." I did feel that we have a somewhat more decorous system in Methodism! 

In the main hall - and wherever I went - there was a great deal of energy, a great deal of optimism that Labour's time is about to arrive and a great deal of passion amongst people who want to create a better world.  The church does not have the monopoly on that!  I came away with a strong sense of God at work in so many ways and through so many channels.

It was so good to meet with the other church leaders later for a briefing meeting and then a meal together.  The Salvation Army had organised our visit brilliantly, with excellent town centre accommodation and really helpful briefing papers.  As well as the Salvation Army, the group comprised church leaders or staff members with responsibility for political life and public issues from Baptist, United Reformed, Quaker and Methodist Churches, along with Steve Hucklesby representing JPIT who do such wonderful work across denominations.

On Tuesday (was that really only yesterday?) we all attended the Prayer Breakfast organised jointly by Christians on the Left and All We Can, where I was proud to hear All We Can's Simon Beresford  speaking about the importance of relationship in international development.  (Delicious breakfast too).  Then we moved to a group of sofas and chairs in the foyer of the Grand Hotel, carefully saved for us by the Salvation Army's superb admin assistant, Olivia.
These we occupied for the whole morning - not just sitting around drinking coffee.  One after another we were joined by MPs and other activists (representing the Refugee Council and Joseph Rowntree Foundation) for a succession of quick-fire 15 minute meetings.  At each one we introduced ourselves, asked one or two leading questions, allowing the guest to share what they were involved in, raised some of the related issues in which our churches are working, and offered prayer for the MP and their work before having a photo taken with each one. Discussions focussed particularly on the refugee crisis, poverty, peace-making and, of course, the effect on all of these of Brexit, In all cases we were treated with warmth and appreciation and we sought not to lobby or harangue, but to affirm.  A great privilege and fascinating experience.  As someone who is very much a beginner in politics, I was so glad to have the expertise and insights of the others to inform and guide our discussions and felt again the great wealth of wisdom, compassion and hunger for justice which there is in our churches.

Over lunch time I attended a fringe event with the Scottish Labour Party -  effectively hustings for their new leader - and just had time to catch 20 minutes of Naomi Klein, International Speaker in the main arena, before another short gathering with the church leaders and then my train north... reaching home just before midnight.  What a fascinating time, what a privilege... but a week in politics?  I'm not sure I could take the pace!  Jill

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