The human face of political policy

Writing in the Spring 2015 edition of  Jesuits and Friends, Sarah Teather MP says engaging in debate is vital to help sow seeds of hope for refugees.

Immigration looks set to dominate the forthcoming General Election campaign. And I do not expect it to be inspiring. In my constituency office (Brent Central) each day, I see the results of our tough immigration approach. Policy consequences walk in through my door with a human face and real back story – desperate, destitute asylum seekers who feel they haven’t had a fair hearing; uncomprehending mothers separated from partners by apparently arbitrary decisions. With their stories raw in my mind, the very thought of the flood of headlines and meaningless posturing about foreign scroungers leaves me physically nauseous.

Politics has got itself into an awkward bind right now and the convulsions over immigration are the most visible symptom of its malaise. But I still believe in the redemptive possibilities of political cooperation as a force for good.

Politicians feel the sense of palpable anxiety in the public mood as all manner of things shift: financial certainties, housing possibilities, work patterns, family life, ever-present images of war uncomfortably close. We feel this anxiety in our electorate, but something in the current structure is suffocating the reflection needed to grow effective leadership. Instead of meeting people where they are and kindling new hope, we tend instead to latch onto issues and feed the desolation.

Fears

There is no doubt that some in the political class are tactically stoking this fear and division and giving expression to it by deliberately demonising immigrants. But many others are just not sure how to proceed. Politicians echo back people’s fears on immigration, as on other matters, often to demonstrate they are listening.

Nothing good ever came from chasing fear though. The end result is an increasingly distrustful conversation, as the resentful electorate is chased by a frantic political class and the vulnerable are weighed down by ever-tougher immigration rules that simply do not address the wider populace’s underlying worries.

I want to say some critical things about current party politics; but I also want to urge you, paradoxically, to engage with it. Why? Because this debate could do with an injection of Christian anthropology: a vocal defence of human dignity, of hospitality and kinship that extends beyond national identity. And because the political conversation needs new players – ones that start with the Ignatian principle of assuming good faith in the other, including politicians; ones with a discerning heart, able to spot the seeds of hope that might be fruitful for the future.

In this fragmented period of party politics, it is no good waiting passively for someone else to lead. It is a job for all citizens. And that means all of us. We should not look away.

 

Sarah Teather be stepping down from Parliament ahead of the General Election and will join the Jesuit Refugee Service as advocacy adviser on 1 June 2015. Find out more about the work of JRS and make a donation.

Photo: Sarah Teather with Syrian refugee children at Bourj Hammoud School in Lebanon as part of the Farm Street Church Aid for Syria Project. Credit: Z. Haddad