The History of CSM
by Dr. Andrew Bradstock,
Howard Patterson Chair in Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and former Director of CSM
The Christian Socialist Movement as we know it today dates from a meeting held in Kingsway Hall, London, in January 1960, though in broad terms ‘Christian socialism’ can be said to have originated in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The early Christian socialists – F D Maurice, Charles Kingsley, J M Ludlow and others – might have found little common ground with those who gathered at Kingsway Hall in 1960. Most of them knew little about socialist thought or political engagement, though they were passionate about promoting the principles of co-operation and solidarity, and actively committed to improving the lot of working people. If their views were not ‘socialist’ in the sense that the term came to be defined subsequently, in the way that they demonstrated the relevance of the Christian faith to current issues, and brought together the terms ‘Christian’ and ‘socialist’, they were pioneers and inspirers of many who later adopted those terms. Maurice once said that ‘Christian Socialist’ was ‘the only title which will define our object, and will commit us at once to the conflict we must engage in sooner or later with the unsocial Christians and the unchristian Socialists’.
That first movement lasted from 1848 to 1854, its most significant legacy being The Working Men’s College which Maurice founded in 1854. (He later followed up with the Working Women’s College, and both institutions are still active today). Yet other organizations emerged in subsequent decades building on its work, among them the Guild of St Matthew (founded by Stewart Headlam in 1877); the Christian Social Union (whose leading lights included Canon Henry Scott Holland and Bishop B F Westcott); and the Church Socialist League, formed in 1906. In the mid twentieth century the work of Christian Socialists such as R H Tawney and Archbishop William Temple had considerable influence, not least in the construction of the welfare state.
Tawney was on the platform at the Kingsway Hall meeting in 1960, which saw members of two other ‘Christian socialist’ bodies – the Socialist Christian League and the Society of Socialist Clergy and Ministers – agree to form a new Christian Socialist Movement. An important stage in the preparation for this meeting had been the publication of a small book of essays called Papers from The Lamb (the name being a reference to the public house in Bloomsbury where the writers had met and conferred, rather than a claim for any sort of divine inspiration!) Among its 23 signatories was the famous Methodist preacher Donald Soper, who became CSM’s first chair in 1960. The movement’s first executive was drawn from leaders of the two supporting movements, among them Stanley Evans, John Groser, Mary Barber and Edward Charles.
A new constitution committed CSM members to pray, give and work for Christian unity, international reconciliation, redistribution of wealth, a classless society, world peace with nuclear and general disarmament and ‘the common ownership and democratic control of the productive resources of the earth’. Support of these positions placed the movement to the left of mainstream Labour Party thinking, and affiliation to the Party, though discussed, was rejected in favour of ‘independence’. Soper – who was made a Life Peer in 1965 – remained chair of CSM until 1975, during which time its membership remained stable at around 500. Among these were a handful of Labour MPs, including Harold Wilson, one of whose first moves on becoming Prime Minister in 1964 was to hold a service for the new government in the Crypt Chapel of the House of Commons.
Soper’s successor as Chair was Rev Edward Charles, and during his time a new influx of younger members encouraged the movement to do some long-term thinking. A working group elected in 1977 set the movement the goal of establishing more branches and expanding membership to 2,500, targets which, by the time Charles stood down in 1983, it was on the way to achieving. Peter Dawe, one of the drivers of this working group and a member of the Greater London Council, was elected Chair to replace Charles, leading the movement for the following ten years. Another influential figure in CSM at the time, and until his untimely death in 2004, was Harry Watson, a Salvationist and founder of one of a very successful CSM branch in Norwich.
In 1986 a change in Labour Party rules made it possible again for socialist societies to affiliate, and CSM applied to take up this option. The movement’s links with the Party were already strong – seventeen MPs were listed as members at this time, including Shadow Chancellor, John Smith – and in a ballot of members 86 per cent voted in favour of affiliation. This led to a gradual rise in CSM’s profile within the Party, and to more MPs joining, including, in 1991, Shadow Employment Secretary, Tony Blair. When Smith stood for the leadership of the Party in 1992 he received enthusiastic support from CSM members, as did Blair when, following Smith’s untimely death in 1994, he was elected to replace him.
The early 1990s were a time of great expansion for the CSM. Hitherto the movement had been run by volunteers working out of their homes but, following consultations with the membership, plans were drawn up to establish an office and a full-time administrator. The movement also sought to broaden its base, moving from being (as one of its documents put it) ‘an association of people who accept the fairly precise description of Christian Socialism set out in its statement of aims’ to a ‘forum for the Christian left’. The new emphasis was to be more on engaging in debate and ‘helping Labour to regain the ethical ground’ rather than promoting individual policies.
CSM’s aspirations to grow were given a huge boost in 1993 when the new Party leader, John Smith, agreed to give the annual Tawney Lecture. Drawing heavily on Tawney’s own ideas, Smith set out a vision for Britain rooted in his own deeply-held Christian socialist convictions, and the publicity which surrounded his lecture propelled CSM into the spotlight in a way hitherto unknown. It continued to enjoy a growing profile under the new Party leader, Tony Blair, who was similarly unafraid to speak publicly about his Christian faith. Hundreds of new members were attracted to the movement in the years leading up to 1997.
In 1993 Chris Bryant succeeded Peter Dawe as chair, and the following year CSM opened its new office, with David Cairns as its first full-time Co-ordinator. In 1995 CSM members backed the change to Clause Four of the Labour Party’s Constitution (a clause which CSM’s early leadership had vigorously supported and which Soper still defended passionately during the 1995 debate), and in 1997 the Labour Party, under Blair, won its famous landslide victory. At Blair’s request, that year’s Conference service – which CSM traditionally organises for the Party – included a Eucharistic element. Bryant and Cairns led CSM through to the late 1990s, both eventually being elected to Parliament and becoming junior ministers.
As CSM entered the new millennium the momentum it had enjoyed in the previous decade began to slow. Membership fell as more ‘traditional’ members became disillusioned with the ‘new Labour’ project, and this decline was exacerbated when the Blair government supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. CSM, by now chaired by Methodist minister and veteran anti-apartheid campaigner David Haslam, vigorously opposed the invasion, but could not persuade the majority of its MPs to vote against the Party. Some CSM members proposed that the movement disaffiliate from the Party, though this move which was rejected at an AGM. One of Haslam’s important contributions to CSM was his pamphlet ‘Christian Socialism for the New Millennium’ published in 2000, the same year that the movement’s new Director, Graham Dale, produced a seminal study of Christian influence in the Labour Party entitled God’s Politicians. In 2001 CSM carried out a major consultation with churches and faith communities in advance of the 2001 General Election, launching its report, Faith in Politics, and a rally in Westminster Central Hall addressed by Prime Minister Tony Blair and widely covered by the media.
CSM continued to reflect on its relationship with the Party and the churches during the early 2000s, and under the oversight of vice-chair Stephen Beer undertook a major re-evaluation of its values and aims. These values had remained largely unchanged since 1960, and, following a lengthy consultation process with the membership (by now around 1600), a new values statement was adopted at the 2005 AGM. As with Labour’s ‘Clause 4 moment’ in 1995, the aim had been to remain faithful to core Christian socialist principles while re-casting them for the 21st century. At this time CSM also sought to widen the appeal of its magazine by changing its name from ‘The Christian Socialist’ to ‘The Common Good’, and it continued to produce substantial and widely-read pamphlets, including one by David Lammy MP (with a foreword by Gordon Brown) calling for a renewed effort to tackle poverty at home.
The year 2007 saw further significant changes for the movement in the form of a programme to give it a new ethos and image. Elections that year resulted in a number of new people holding leadership positions, many having co-ordinated their candidacy under a commitment to ‘change and renew’ the movement (probably the first time candidates for CSM positions had stood on a ‘ticket’). Another new development was the election of a Chair who was also a Member of Parliament, former Cabinet minister Alun Michael, and under his energetic leadership, and building on its new values and aims, CSM embarked on a programme to increase its membership, strengthen its financial base and develop ‘values-based’ debates within the Party. Michael’s election as Chair considerably strengthened CSM’s links with the Party and Government, links which became even more solid when the Executive decided, late in 2008, to accept the Party’s offer of desk-space for the Director and Administrator within its HQ.
AS CSM approaches its 50th birthday on 23 January 2010 it is very good heart. As Andy Flannagan, appointed Director early in 2009, noted at the end of that year, membership is once again rising, CSM members are having influence at all levels within the Party (including getting selected as Parliamentary candidates in key seats) and there is a greater focus on praying together. 2009 saw CSM make a major impact at Party Conference – it held more fringe meetings than any other organization, as well as hosting the Conference service – and a consequence of its move to Party HQ has been the opportunity to build relationships across the Party and begin ‘changing people’s perceptions about the numerical and intellectual strength of the movement’. CSM is seeing ideas for which it has longed campaigned – such as a currency transaction tax – gaining traction, and with more than 10 per cent of Labour MPs now within its ranks, it has a profile within the Party it has not enjoyed for more than a decade.
CSM may have come a long way since that inaugural gathering in 1960, but it has never lost its founders’ passion to build a world based on the principles of community, peace, equality and sustainability, or to find relevant ways to engage the gospel of the kingdom of Christ with the real and messy world of politics.