Labour revives faith in Christian Socialism

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The Independent Online
ONLY six weeks before his untimely death, John Smith launched a campaign for the Christian Socialist Movement, entitled, ironically, 'Doesn't Britain Need a Change of Heart?' Its target is to raise pounds 100,000 to set up a full-time office and resource centre for 'radical Christian action'.

Mr Smith did not live to see just how successful the appeal has been; three-quarters of the cash has already been raised.

Christian Socialism is back as a fashionable, rather than fringe, political force. The movement has a membership of 1,500, and is attracting 10 new recruits a week. Mr Smith was a vigorous supporter, as are his likely successor, Tony Blair, other members of the Shadow Cabinet, 20 MPs, an MEP, and many local councillors. Since 1988, the organisation has been affiliated to the Labour Party.

Adherents of Christian Socialism say that its roots go back 600 years to Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants' Revolt, and his priestly colleague John Ball. The tradition is traced through the Diggers and the Levellers, William Blake's dream of building a new Jerusalem 'among these dark Satanic mills', the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and 19th- century social reformers such as Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies, who co-wrote Politics for the People in 1848 in an attempt to achieve 'the socialising of Christianity and the Christianising of Socialism'.

But it was the social historian R H Tawney, whose works written between the wars inspired a generation of Labour activists, who did most to popularise the ideals of Christian Socialism.

However, the movement declined in in the immediate post-war years, and it was left to the unlikely figure of Tom Driberg, Labour's outrageous gay MP, to resuscitate it. In the late Fifties, he and two other Labour MPs, Hugh Delargy and Fred Willey, met with like- minded clerics, among them Mervyn Stockwood, Donald Soper and Canon John Collins, in a room at the Lamb pub in Bloomsbury. Driberg took the minutes, and in 1959 published their thoughts as a pamphlet, Papers From the Lamb.

This manifesto led to the formation a year later of the Christian Socialist Movement, drawing support from a church almost as broad as the Labour Party itself. CSM brings together Anglicans, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Salvationists, Presbyterians and many other denominations. Last week, it even had three letters enclosing cash from active Liberal Democrats.

In March last year, the movement published a series of essays entitled Reclaiming the Ground - a reference to Labour's determination to challenge the Tories' belief that they are the true faith - in which John Smith wrote: 'Let us not underestimate the desire, which I believe is growing in our society, for a politics based on principle.

'What is more, I believe the tide of opinion is beginning to flow towards a recognition of the value of society and away from the nihilistic individualism of so much of modern Conservatism.'

Alas, he was never to see if he was right. But Tony Blair will be able to test the value of his Christian sense of purpose, discovered in his student days at Oxford. He speaks of a Christian rethinking of Labour's values which will act as 'a powerful compass for the direction of change in our country'.

He argues: 'The new agenda in politics will reach out past old debates between economic ideologies of state control and laissez-faire and embrace different issues: the development of new economic opportunities for the individual; the environment, the Third World, the international economy, the creation of modern, efficient public services.

'A return to what we are really about, what we believe in, would be a healthy journey for our country as well as the Labour Party.'

Increasingly, the activists are saying 'Amen' to that.

Donations to the appeal may be sent to CSM Trust, Freepost, 40 St Alban's Road, London NW5 4YP.