There is an interesting article in the Scotsman today about leaders of the main political parties banning their candidates from signing up to the Westminster 2010 Declaration of Christian Conscience.
A spokeswoman for the Conservative Party has confirmed that candidates had been advised not to sign Westminster 2010 and a Labour Party spokesman claimed that the ban was part of a wider policy for candidates.
It is strangely ironic that the party whip seems to be already in force for candidates who are still seeking election and that they are apparently not being allowed to speak for themselves on matters of conscience for fear of incurring the wrath of party chiefs or the politically correct.
Over 100 candidates of all parties have however had the courage to defy the ban so far and have taken the pledge to ‘Respect, Uphold and Protect the right of Christians to hold and express Christian beliefs and act according to Christian Conscience’.
Others who have been unable to sign the pledge for whatever reason are being classified as ‘supportive’, ‘unsupportive’ or ‘unclear’ on the basis of past voting records, public statements or the substance of their replies.
The positions of all candidates are then displayed on the website to help Christian voters vote in an informed way. The site also carries links to many other resources on the internet which give information about candidates of interest to Christians.
If sitting MPs responses are at variance with their past voting records (and there have been a not insignificant number of these!) then we simply disregard their replies and judge them on the basis of how they have actually behaved. The past voting records of MPs on key issues raised in the declaration are readily accessible now in the public domain so if they are making false claims they are being immediately found out.
Some Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates are adding the standard proviso that they will only respect, uphold and protect rights that are recognised in law. This apparent unwillingness to stand up for human rights that are not actually recognised in law makes a nonsense of the pledge and will bring little comfort to many Christians who already feel discriminated against by recently passed legislation.
We have seen a gradual evolution in the cut-and-paste letters that we are receiving from Conservative candidates in particular who are apparently being instructed how to reply word for word by Conservative Central Office.
Christian candidates are replying to constituents as follows:
Holding my Christian faith is important to me. I know that as a Member of Parliament I will be asked to vote on a number of issues of conscience, on which you can be assured that I will be guided by my faith.
Our Christian heritage is integral to the United Kingdom; it is not possible to understand our history or society without knowledge of it, nor to appreciate today's society without respecting its values. If elected I hope to play my part in asserting these values which mean so much to you and me, which will certainly include freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom to associate.
In writing this they are skilfully side-stepping the issue of whether they will have the courage to defy the whip on issues of conscience where they are not granted a conscience vote by the party hierarchy.
Non-Christians are using the following slightly edited version
Many of the issues referred to in the declaration are 'free vote' issues meaning that MPs can decide personally how they wish to vote without involving party politics. I hold deep personal views about some of these issues, and others not included in the Declaration. I can assure you that, if elected, I will vote in accordance with my conscience and without thought for party advantage.
I believe that whatever our faith, we can be reminded of the great contribution Christianity has made in shaping the nature of our country, its humanity and essential decency. I recognise that many Christians feel that too often today faith isn’t treated with the respect it deserves. But, I believe faith can unquestionably be a force for good in our society and play a significant role in the future of our country. If I have the honour to serve as your next MP, I will continue to support and respect the importance of freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom to associate.
Again this is a commitment to do none other than follow the party whip and will not satisfy those who are concerned about the current government whipping discriminatory legislation or not allowing free votes on issues that are clearly matters of conscience.
Some candidates add extra personal notes but the standard stem remains more or less unchanged.
Party Leader David Cameron sent the following abbreviated version via one of his staff. On the basis of his past voting record we have given him the status ‘position unclear of unknown’.
Please let me assure you that we do understand your concerns on this issue. Britain is a largely Christian country with an established Church and David would not seek to change that. Our Christian heritage is integral to the United Kingdom; it is not possible to understand our history or society without knowledge of it, nor to appreciate today’s society without respecting its values. If re-elected, David hopes to play his part in asserting these values which will certainly include freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom to associate.
We have also developed a standard reply for conservative candidates taking the cut and paste option as follows:
I am writing on behalf of the Westminster 2010 Declaration recently featured recently as lead story on the BBC Election 2010 website
We understand that one of your constituents has written to you asking you to pledge that you will 'respect, uphold and protect the right of Christians to hold and express Christian beliefs and act according to Christian conscience’ and that you have sent them the standard cut and paste reply from Conservative Central Office.
When candidates are unwilling or unable to make the pledge we assess them on the basis of their past voting records, public statements or the substance of their replies.
On this basis we have assessed you as [INSERT STATUS] and this will be your status displayed on our website
Please do come back to us on this if you would like to discuss this further.