Friday, May 18, 2012

Interview with Stephen Timms MP

The follwing text is from an interview I conducted with the new Chair of the Christian Socialist Movement, Stephen Timms MP, at Portcullis House last week.Here he mentions his hope for the CSM, and the need to reach out to those Christians who were attracted by Labour in the late 1990s.

PAUL BURGIN: Well I've got with me here, Stephen Timms MP, who was formerly, is it, in the Blair Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury?

STEPHEN TIMMS: Yes

PAUL BURGIN: And er, currently, you're you recently become Chair of CSM, after standing unopposed in an election. Just quickly first of all, what made you decide to stand as Chair of CSM?

STEPHEN TIMMS: Well I have been in CSM a long time, erm, over thirty years now

PAUL BURGIN: Yeah

STEPHEN TIMMS: And I think it's a very important organisation with a very important job to do. Perhaps particularly of course at the moment. And with the decision by Alun Michael to step down.Giving a view to the vacancy, something I'm very keen to do. Erm as you know I was selected unopposed

PAUL BURGIN: Yes

STEPHEN TIMMS: Delighted to be in the position

PAUL BURGIN: Yes. Do you have any agenda for CSM from where you are standing, erm, any future plans for the organisation?

STEPHEN TIMMS: Well for me really, kind of the most recent stimulus for thinking about all of this was the Demos report on faithful citizens The "People Who Do God Do Good!" was how they expressed it, and there was some very striking data in there I  think, about the extent to which people in the churches in Britain are natural Labour Party supporters. So for me the point that over half the UK population describes themselves as religious! According to the European values survey and about 1 in 8 of the UK population are a member of a religious organisation of some kind or another. A great majority of churches or church based organisations it seems increasingly other faiths as well. But out of about 1 in 8 of the population er, there are the majority of the population who volunteer, who take part in er, community activity in their areas. The majority who er volunteer to work with Trade Unions, the majority who volunteer on a whole range of things like women's issues, development issues, human rights issues. So there is here a very large and important group of people who should be supporting Labour and at the last election they didn't

PAUL BURGIN: Yes

STEPHEN TIMMS: For me that's the heart of the challenge CSM needs to be addressing over the next few years, in the run up, particularly to the next election and of course beyond that as well

PAUL BURGIN: So in doing all that, looking at other groups, particularly the social campaign groups, groups where there are Christians involved, how do we respond at CSM to the challanges they make. Take for example groups like the Accord Coalition which one of my followers on Twitter asked me to ask you. What challenges do you see the CSM facing in dealing with such groups and working with such groups?

STEPHEN TIMMS: Well the way I look at CSM, I think it's got a twin role. On the one hand it is facing people in the churches and it needs to be, and will under my Chairmanship, be promoting the policies of the Labour Party for people in the churches. Seeking to build alliances with people with concerns about a whole variety of social justice matters and seeking to persuade them that Labour is the Party that can deliver their goals, the best place to do that and I can think of a whole range of organisations will benefit, that undoubtedly is the case. But it's also got a job in facing the Labour Party, I think, and to draw attention to the Party, the Party leadership and others, of the existence of this very, very large group of people, who are on the left of politics. Who are coming up into politics from a starting point of their Christian faith, and whom worship really is at the heart of their identity and the reason why they do what they do, and that in saying to the Party that the Party needs to make some effort to ensure that those people feel welcomed in our Party and not feel driven away and my concern is at the last election a lot of people did feel they were being driven away and we really need to change that in the years ahead

PAUL BURGIN: That leads me to another question which I want to raise and this was from the God and Politics blog, which was "Is Ed Miliband's atheism an issue with Christian Labour supporters?", that you have seen?

STEPHEN TIMMS: Well I think Ed is someone who understands and actually values very highly, the contribution that people's faith makes to their values and to what they do about their values, and Ed's made that clear for example already in a no of interactions he's had with the Christian Socialist Movement, including the morning after he was elected as Party leader, that was at the Party Conference in Manchester. He came up to a reception after the CSM Conference service, so for me that's crucial thing, that Ed's values and understands the importance of the faith which is at the heart of many people who are absolutely committed supporters of Labour. And I think he has made that clear. So the fact that he is not himself a believer I don't think need be an issue at all

PAUL BURGIN: And working outside of that in terms of our engagement outside of the Labour Party, one or two have mentioned that some churches in the South East seem to be increasingly "Conservative Christians". Do we at CSM see that as a challenge? And if so how do we engage, well even if we don't how do we engage with that?

STEPEHEN TIMMS: I certainly see it as a challenge, I mean I grew up in a church in the South East in the 1960s and the 1970s and I vividly remember being told in my church that "we are Christias, we vote Conservative!" so it's not a new problem. I think actually it was one of the less appreciated achievements of Tony Blair to bring a whole swathe of people from that background to vote Labour in 1997, 2001, and 2005, an awful lot of them didn't vote Labour in 2010. So that's, we need to address that and your characterisation of Conservative churches in the South East is one effect of that, it's a wider problem, and one of the biggest successes of the Labour government was the very strong collaboration with the churches around Jubilee 2000 campaign, leading up to the Millennium, and Make Poverty History Campaign in the middle of last decade and what that showed was that a lot of those people who could be regarded as Conservative Christians were actually  willing to campaign against poverty in the developing world. That's a very  good example of a kind of issue where Labour and people and the churches can and should and actually have made common cause and I'll certainly be wanting to explore that and more like that in the period ahead

PAUL BURGIN: There's one more question, I know you've been very busy today and in a rush but it is a very trivial one. One or two have rather cheekily asked who you'd like to see as the next Archbishop of Canterbury?

STEPHEN TIMMS: Well I, the church I attend is not an anglican church, so I am not sure that I really got any grounds or legitimacy to express a preference for that one, or more necessarily that I know the figures in contention particularly well. I'd only say for me Rowan Williams has done a fantastic job as Archbishop of Canterbury and I think he has perhaps yet been given the credit he's entitled to from what he's done. I hope that somebody will be appointed who can take forward the great job that I think he has done and can work closely with the leaders of all parties and in particular the leader of mine

PAUL BURGIN: Well thankyou very much and I know you've been busy today

STEPHEN TIMSS: Thanks for the chance to meet up

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