Like me, I guess you have been thinking, praying and deliberating about how to vote. It hasn't been an easy process for me and I think some of the things I will say in my posting will be a little unpopular - but here goes anyway. I have tried to work through, as I do each time I am asked to vote, some of the core principles and decision-making filters that I believe will help me to make a Spirit-led decision.
Principle One: Who will benefit, support and protect the poor and the marginalised most effectively.
Whilst lots of Christians think that the most important question to ask as they come to a ballot box is 'will my vote protect the church', I don't see that as the top priority in the New Testament or the Old. Don't misunderstand me - I think we need to be careful to campaign for the protection of our civil liberties etc - but I think that we can get things the wrong way round. God's prophetic demands of Israel and the clarion call of the life, example and teaching of Christ, is that we should honour God - of course that is true. But the immediate outworking of that is the way in which we treat our neighbour rather than the protections we secure for ourselves. To put our needs, desires and well being above the needs of the poor, the excluded and the marginalised, seems to be to contradict the teaching of the Great Commandment (Matthew 22); the call to be Incarnational (John 13 and John 15) and the example and call to Kenosis (Philippians 2).
We all know that there are going to be extremely austere times ahead, and that whoever comes to power is going to have to introduce swinging tax increases and severe public spending cuts. Given that those with a traditional conservative view believe that tax should be cut to enable a release of private spending and investment, those with a traditional socialist view believe that there should be a more centrally managed approach to wealth re-distribution through taxation and those with a traditional liberal political theology believe in the reduction of the state and the greatest good for the greatest number, I choose to believe that across the political spectrum there is a genuine desire to do something to protect the weak, the excluded and the vulnerable during the next few years.
If that is a given (and you might be call me niaive in making this assumption), I want to cast a vote that will afford the greatest protection to those who are most exposed and vulnerable. In short, I want to understand exactly how the austere decade ahead will be managed - and none of the parties are answering that question with honesty and integrity. I'm dismayed that the principle of wealth redistribution hasn't really been discussed with vigour. I want to know how the poorest will be protected from inevitable interest rate rises, cuts to essential services and the inevitable job losses that might ensue. I want to know what the parties will do to enable support and protection of those at the bottom of the pile, from disabled children to low skilled and low paid workers. I also want to know how we will deal with immigration without vilifying asylum seekers or those who have a genuine concern about mis-managed economic migration. We can't pretend it isn't an issue nor can we simply endorse attitudes that are driven by fear rather than fairness. Why did it take Gillian Duffy being insulted for this to get onto ANY of the leaders' agendas?
I'm not impressed with the lack of information on these issues and it leaves me frustrated. Having read the three manifestos, the Liberals explain most fully what they do - but they still over cover a tiny portion of the stringency that we will need to embrace if we are to navigate the straights of economic constriction we will face.
Principle Two: Which party will uphold truth, transparency and accountability.
My second key principle for deciding how to vote relates to the party's policies on accountability, honesty and truthfulness. Given the complete and utter debacle of the last few years around expenses etc, I want to know that there will be a major overhaul of the systems and protocols of central government. This doesn't just relate to how people behave in the commons. I want to know how truthfulness will be encouraged and integrity be strengthened. The whole thing is brought into focus when we hear of politicians saying one thing in public and another in private. Of course, Gordon Brown should not be castigated as the only such politician just because he was caught. The reality is that whilst I have met many senior politicians and have always felt that each one came into public life to make a difference - whatever their party allegiances, I have also become very concerned by the lack of accountability, the prevalence of spin and the incessant avoidance of issues of integrity, honesty and trust-worthiness. I have never felt as 'unconfident' about the candour and honesty of leading politicians as I do now. That is a serious crisis for a committed social democrat like me.
For the first time in my life, I actually strongly considered not voting in this election. Of course I will - and I can hear your voices rising in horror at the the thought that I would even think about not voting. The truth is though, my confidence in senior politicians has been so undermined in the last few years that I came desperately close to abandoning a deeply held principle that I must always vote. In the end, my commitment to be part of the solution and my determination to stand up and make a difference led me to the decision that I will vote - but the process has been harder than it has ever been.
I want to believe in politicians. I want to know that they won't break manifesto promises. I need to be assured that they will be accountable to the electorate. I want the power to recall my MP if they step out of line. I want to know that decisions about spending, war, housing and education will be made with integrity honesty and genuine concern for the good of society. I am fed up with politicians who put their own well-being and the well-being of heir own parties above those of the country.
So integrity and truthfulness is about more than expenses - it is about a system of election which is fairer, it is about a re-formed Second Chamber, it is about greater accountability of elected members and it is about an assurance that major decisions will be made in consultation rather than in isolation and in silos of the political elite - detached and remote from the anxieties and fears of real people.
I think a great start would be a stronger and clearer commitment to Nolan's principles for public life - which were supposed to strengthen the responsibilities and behaviour of those in public life - but where have they gone and what has happened to conversations about integrity and truth.
Principle Three: How will families be protected?
I am not just talking about the traditional family of a husband and wife and children, I am talking about families. Of course, as a Christian, I believe that the very best and God-given ideal for families is one with a husband and wife bringing up children in a loving and stable environment. Marriages need to be protected and strengthened - and with all the rhetoric from the parties none of them have even scratched the surface of protecting and strengthening the family. Taxation support, required counselling prior to divorce, and acknowledgement of the centrality of the unit of marriage at the heart of our society would all help - or at least make a start. How will government make divorce less easy? Alongside that, investment in pre-marital counselling and a campaign encouraging people to consider marriage might help. We as churches could make marriage easier too - by suppling low cost ways of helping couples marry and keep the financial outlay down etc.
That might sound draconian - I don't mean it to. Instead, I also want to understand how the parties will support single mums and dads - those who have ended up in a family where one parent is trying to do the job of two. Investment in support for children in such families and the reversal of some ridiculous ideas that negate or remove the importance of fathers and mothers would be a great place to start.
Principle Four: Which party has a consistent approach to the dignity of life.
The massive shift in thinking in churches to social action and engagement has been a huge blessing - and I welcome it. But I also want to know what the new government will do to protect the dignity of life. That involves serious reconsideration of current limits on the points at which abortions can take place, the informal relaxation around passive euthanasia and the apparent softening in the courts of the law concerning assisted suicide and dying. It feels inconsistent to me to have a view around the poor and the marginalised which is so strong, and then to dismiss the issues around the dignity of life at the beginning and the end of a human being's life journey. I'm sad that so many seem to have allowed the issues of the dignity of life become divided into things that we speak out on and things that we do not.
How will a new government apply a consistent life ethic in issues of abortion and euthansia as well as in support to those who struggle in life? The rights of the unborn are as important to me as the rights of the born. The rights of the disabled, the terminally ill and the vulnerable are as important as the rights of the healthy and the strong.
Principle Five: How will the freedoms of the church be protected.
I am used to the mantras and comments from politicians that tell me they welcome the church's works and projects. I have spoken with most the senior figures in political parties across the years. I applaud and thank them for their acknowledgement of the importance of the church's social contribution to society. It isn't enough though. The solid, central reason for the work that we do is our allegiance to the Lord Jesus. We believe in social action - of course we do, but we also believe that we should be free to talk about the motivation and the inspiration of the Lord Jesus.
I have listened with great interest to comments about 'faith' communities in the election campaign. I've watched the videos (the 'Christians in Politics' one is really good) of leaders courting our vote.
Yet I haven't heard an acknowledgement that our faith matters as much as our actions. I will not vote for a party that forces me to hide my faith, pretend that my motivation is incidental and can be removed or suggests that my believe in the unqiue message of the Christian Gospel that 'Jesus is Lord'. I celebrate the freedom and diversity in Britain - but that diversity must include the freedom for me, as a follower of the Lord Jesus to share His message not only in my actions, but in preaching, evangelism and mission. Of course I do not want the government to fund my evangelism - but I do expect them to afford me the civil liberties and freedoms to both proclaim the message of Christ and demonstrate it in my actions and approaches to social engagement. I'm not a pluralist, I'm not going to pretend that my allegiance to Christ is a secondary issue.
In short, how will the parties afford me as a Christian the respect and freedom of speech and action that I am asked (and willingly agree) to afford to fellow citizens. Controversial as it may be - I want the freedom to live, speak and act as a follower of Christ in the same way as Muslims are afforded freedom.
So there are my five key principles which I have been prayerfully considering and thinking through - and I haven't decided yet! What is your framework for voting?