Guest Post: Speech Delivered by Father Michael Docherty at Blue Labour Conference

Fr Michael Docherty is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lancaster. He serves as parish priest of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish Carlisle as well as being Deputy Head of Service of the Diocese of Lancaster Education Service.  He is a graduate of History as well as holding degrees in Theology and Dogmatic Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.  Prior to seminary formation he taught at St. Edmunds Catholic Secondary School in Dover, Kent. 

The French Dominican priest, Henri Lacordaire, once said that a priest is ‘a member of each family yet he belongs to none’.  It is in that vein that I speak today. As a priest, I am aware that I can only inform the people I serve how to vote, but never who to vote for: I do not belong to any particular political ‘family’ and any views I hold have been shaped by Catholic Social Teaching as well as through the formation I received from my own family during the 1970’s and 80’s. 

I am a West Cumbrian, an area once renowned for its mining industry, where ‘the harvest below ground could show | Black and red currants on one tree’ [Norman Nicholson Cleator Moor] and where, my grandfather would often state, they’d elect a donkey if it wore a red rosette [I’m sure it was not meant as a slur against Jack Cunningham]. It was there that I first learned that people matter: that how people are viewed, respected and treated – matters. At the heart of today’s discussion is whether ‘people matter’ to the Labour movement.  In my own context – whether my people, Catholic, working-class, often on the social and indeed geographic periphery: whether these people matter to that movement.

As an adolescent I assumed that if you were a Catholic you were, more or less, an honorary member of the Labour Party.  The parish priest of Cleator would have Jack Cunningham sitting in the front pew during Mass in the run up to election.  The Knights of St. Columba would organise a visit from Bruce Kent [then a Monsignor of the Church] to argue for nuclear disarmament in Whitehaven Civic Hall. Religious Education would be a solid diet of Catholic Social Teaching, in which Oscar Romero and a theology of liberation would be the main course.  To be a Catholic in West Cumbria, a working-class Catholic, was to identify yourself politically with a movement that stood up for you, that represented your voice, your aspirations, your morality at a time of great upheaval.  In those turbulent times of the 1980s, those dark days for many communities in the north of England, the natural home of many Catholics was within a Labour movement: it was there that they had a voice, there that they found colleagues and friends, there that they were treated with dignity and respect.

In 2002, Tony Blair attended Mass in the same church Jack Cunningham had been paraded twenty years earlier.  The vote for Labour in the election prior to this had been 58%, and yet at the last election, in 2015, it was 42%, the lowest it has been since the constituency was created in 1983. And yet, we watch as UKIP flourishes, growing from a party pulling in a little over 2% of the vote in 2005, to over 15% in 2015. Times have moved on from those head banging days of the 1980s, situations are of course radically different, but one must still ask: might it be that the people are much the same? Their joys, fears, hopes and aspirations: they are where they always were, and it is Labour who has walked away? If so, then what does it tell us, that they now find their political voice elsewhere?

When I served in a parish in Workington, I remember speaking to the sitting M.P., a parishioner – a rare breed these days, a Catholic Labour M.P. I speculated whether the Labour movement had somehow forgotten Catholics, and working-class Catholics especially – a phenomenon with which we, in the Catholic Church, also grapple with. Could it be that Labour simply failed to serve? Or to care? I pose the question, though one thing seems clear: these people, my people, increasingly feel Labour is no home. Where once they found a political port in a social storm, offering shelter and representation, a form of political salvation if you will, they are now more likely to find distaste and even condemnation. How the circle turns.

I lost interest in politics shortly after the Fox Hunting Act, not because I loved in any way fox hunting, but because I could not see how the life of a fox could be worth so much more Parliamentary time than that of an unborn child.  I watched as my Bishop, who served the poor all his life with great humility and devotion, was summoned to appear before a Commons Select Committee to be grilled by Labour MP Barry Sheerman because he happened to believe that Catholic schools should be….well, Catholic.  I saw my diocese forced to say farewell to its charitable arm – Catholic Caring Services – an organisation that had its roots in Victorian Preston, a charity that had sought to ‘make a difference to the lives of children and young people, families and adults experiencing disadvantage’, and did so to great acclaim for decades. All these people, trying to make a difference.  And yet this hostility, these obstacles, under a Labour government. Or, as I and so many of my kith and kin used to see it: under our government. Nowadays, I have baskets to collect food at the back of my church… do we call that progress, do we call that serving the Common Good?

And so, back to the focus of our talk. Do people matter? Well, of course – we’re clear about that: whatsoever you do to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine…. But, more pointedly for the tradition I speak to, does the voice of Catholic people still find a home within the Labour movement?  A voice which contains the richness of a body of social teaching born of eternal Wisdom and insight which still speaks to the concerns of our time?  Or is that voice seen as simply irrelevant these days…a treasure once cherished, but now cast aside.