Elections always bring out the best and worst and ultimately, the truth of politicians. That explains why they are so careful in where they go, with whom they are seen and what they say during campaigns. The appearance of British prime minister David Cameron at Redeemed Christian Church’s annual gathering at its Festival of Life London event, was therefore very significant. The Nigerian church is Africa’s largest pentecostal body and his presence was also a reminder that British voters go to the polls on May 7th.
But it wasn’t just the 45,000 potential voters at London’s ExCel Centre on April 17 that Cameron was thinking about. The African demographic is the fastest growing in the UK. As a subset of the crassly lumped together ‘Black and Minority ethnic’ demographic, the African population is of increasing general interest. Four years ago at the last census the size of the self-identified African population doubled to one million, overtaking the Black Caribbean population for the first time.
Morally conservative, entrepreneurial, with an ingrained belief in education as the platform to a better life, and with an increasing per capita income, Africans as a group have been attracting the interest of British marketers, and now politicians too.
The proliferation of African churches, many of them super-churches with attendances into the thousands, led by highly revered authority figures with official designations such as Senior Pastor, General Overseer, Spiritual Father, et al is an obviously attractive gateway for British establishment types who seek an entry point to the Black pound or the Black vote.
It is not surprising the Conservative party has been at the forefront of making overtures to the community. Traditionally, the left-leaning Labour Party has been deemed the natural home of the UK’s Black community. However since the obsession of the Labour Party to occupy the centre ground of politics under Tony Blair, there has been a growing feeling Labour has been taking the Black vote for granted and shied away from real progressive measures which would cost them the votes of Middle England. At the same time, the Conservative Party have doubled down on their efforts to woo minority communities and in this election will be fielding more ethnic minority candidates in winnable seats than the other parties.
Cameron was in fine form at Festival of Life–his speechwriter had carefully chosen all the right crowd-pleasing notes. He obsequiously paid tribute to the head of the church pastor Enoch Adeboye (“Daddy G-O!” he trilled more than once to a raucous reception), hailed the spirit of family and community which the church exemplified and nodded to the aspirational culture which chimes with the prosperity gospel with which many Pentecostal congregants are familiar. He also won the audience by reiterating the UK is a Christian country.
Safe in the knowledge the event would not be covered by mainstream press and that he would not be fielding any questions on this the next day Cameron waxed lyrical on no-go topic areas like his long discredited ‘Big Society’ social mobilization push from five years ago.
But he achieved his primary aim to leave the thousands of people in the church with a feeling of bonhomie, that they were being accepted into the establishment mainstream, and that he was really ‘one of them’. It would have been interesting to have heard him defend to that largely African group how his government has overseen the widening of the inequality gap during his premiership, or how 50% of young Black men in the UK are out of employment, training or education.
As African community churches continue to grow and be of increasing social capital to the UK, they would do well to recognise that they will become larger targets for acts of political and even cultural manipulation and exploitation. This will require them to develop a degree of political astuteness which will hopefully manifest itself in a refusal to provide a platform to politicians to pontificate and offer safe platitudes 6 weeks before what is projected to be the tightest election in recent history, especially where there has not been any track record of ongoing engagement.
While we’re on the subject it’s worth remembering how things worked out for the last political leader who spent time on his campaign praying with Pastor Adeboye.