Rebecca Long-Bailey has been criticised over comments she made on abortion that set her apart from many of her Labour colleagues. Long-Bailey said in a response to a questionnaire asked by Salford deanery:
“It is currently legal to terminate a pregnancy up to full-term on the grounds of disability while the upper limit is 24 weeks if there is no disability.
“I personally do not agree with this position and agree with the words of the Disability Rights Commission that ‘the context in which parents choose whether to have a child should be one in which disability and non-disability are valued equally’.”
These views stem from her Catholic faith. And so the question has again been raised as to how – and whether – people with a religious faith can hold high office in politics while remaining true to their beliefs.
Rebecca may or may not be the right person to lead the Labour party. But if she isn’t then it should not be her faith that disqualifies her.
More than two billion people are Christian. One in eight of these are persecuted. This is not the case in the UK, where we should be proud of our commitment to religious liberty.
However, I wonder if this liberty is being pushed back as liberalism itself becomes increasingly illiberal. A key component of liberalism is the ability to hold firmly to a particular creed but to believe that you have no right to impose it on others. It is fundamentally illiberal to be tolerant of other people’s views only up to the point where you don’t agree with them.
Of course, there must be limits to this: in cases where there is incitement to hatred or to harm someone, for example. But in a plural society like ours, we have to accept there will be different positions about how to organise things. We must insist that no single outlook should be able to extinguish the rest.
It might be that Rebecca gets an easier ride than I did. If so, there are a couple of reasons why.
Firstly, she may well deal with the challenges she receives better than I did. I feared – probably accurately – that if the media focused on my faith then I would never have the opportunity to do my job: to communicate the Liberal Democrats’ message. But in trying to dodge traps set for me, I fell into another trap: of looking indecisive.
Some may think that whatever I did, it was a no-win situation. However, I tend to think that a wiser person would have dealt with the challenges far better. Let’s trust that Rebecca is wiser than me.
The second reason Rebecca might get an easier ride is because the Labour left are likely to be kinder and more tolerant to one of their own than to someone from a different place on the political spectrum. If so, we might find this could end up becoming a force for good. These people may have to accept it is possible to be left-wing and to hold religious views that might even be considered on the margins of being socially conservative.
We all have a conscience and a world view. Nobody comes from a neutral standpoint. The notion that some world views are inherently acceptable while others are viewed with deep suspicion does not stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, many of our unconscious assumptions about morality stem from a mixture of untraceable influences.
Millions of people in Britain believe Christianity to be true and profess a loyalty to Jesus Christ. But a guiding light continues to be – as Rebecca put it herself – that our faith teaches us that “the only society we should be striving for is one based on love”.
As long as we live in a democracy, we are going to get people with a variety of different positions. We should not be seeking assimilation of these views by closing down discussion on difficult themes. Instead we should look to understand the position of our opponents. This includes the views of those seeking to be our political leaders.
If we can defend those whom we find offensive – and accept with grace the offence we may feel in return – it will be worthwhile. Britain might then just be in with a chance of becoming a society where it is possible to live less tribally and with genuine warmth alongside those whose views differ from our own.
If Long-Bailey is disqualified from the Labour leadership on the basis of her religious views it will be a great pity. And British politics will be a poorer place for it.
Tim Farron is MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale and former leader of the Lib Dems