We really ought to vote on 4th July, but for Catholics that’s no easy task

Whoever or whatever you are, cringeworthy moments are simply a hazard of life that can happen to the best of us. Politicians are certainly no exception – from Neil Kinnock’s famous pebble beach fall to Theresa May’s robotic dance; from Ed Milliband’s struggles with a bacon sandwich through to Jeremy Corbyn’s very inappropriate high five miss with Emily Thornberry; from Sajid Javid’s creepy power pose to Tony Blair’s agonising tight jeans walk with George Bush, careers are often derailed by the most unanticipated of photographic moments.

As you’ll have heard after Wednesday’s epic visual fail by Rishi Sunak, as he wilted excruciatingly in a rainstorm whilst trying to emulate a Prime Minister, the buzzword is ‘optics’. That used to be the study of the behaviour of light, but over recent decades its morphed into something far wider – and far more serious. The latest dictionary definitions have it as “The aspects of an action, policy, or decision (as in politics or business) that relate to public perceptions”.

Frankly, after the Downing Street downpour, that really is something of an understatement. Or was it? Only the next eight weeks will tell whether the Rishi rainstorm moment was the final flushing away of a bankrupt government, or a brilliantly choreographed scheme to humanise a distant and unpopular prime minister and return his party to power.

And that’s the crucial thing about this new science of optics – we’re all human and anyone can slip up; there’s a latent propensity for humans to make idiots of themselves, it’s part of our species traits and is undoubtedly God’s retaliation mechanism for our tendency towards superiority and arrogance.

In one respect this frailty can even enhance political reputations. Who could forget the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s election campaign visit to Rhyl in north Wales in May 2001, where protestor Craig Evans threw an egg at him, and was immediately set upon by Prescott with a hefty left-handed jab. It made all the front pages the next day, but the coverage was far from negative. Most of the public were proven to be supportive of Prescott’s outburst and Labour went on to win the election.

Fast forward to 2012 and the Olympics in London, and we had the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson left hanging like a wet towel on a newly installed zip wire, wearing a blue hard hat, limply waving two plastic union jacks and dangling with his trousers half way up his shins. Any ‘serious’ politician would have sprinted at the suggestion of trying such a stunt, especially as it was well known that the zip wire was faulty. The incredible oddity about this incident was that it consigned Johnson to the persona of a buffoon but, far from banishing him from public approbation, the man embraced his new clown and developed it into an artform that five years later transported him triumphantly into number 10 Downing Street. This continued to serve him well until arrogance got the better of him, and partying during Covid severed the trust that the public had placed in their laddish but loveable leader.

Trust of course is what lies at the heart of the science of optics, especially when it comes to politics and politicians. Sadly over the past decade in particular we’ve seen an ever-increasing obsession among legislators with chasing public opinion and creating the ‘right optics’, at a time of unprecedented uncertainly and global upheaval when everyone ought to have been focussed profoundly on things, rather than how things look.

I think it’s a sound indicator of just how lost we’ve all become that so many politicians – 120 and rising at the time of writing – have decided not to stand in this looming election. And it’s not just exhausted and disillusioned Tories who are fleeing the fight, the defections are coming from across the parties. As much of the public has been saying for some time now, our political system has lost its way profoundly, and many of our representatives are admitting that they can no longer carry on, they can no longer assess what their constituents want or think, and none of our political parties seem to possess any clear or determined sense of how they’re going to sort out the mess our country has found itself in.

Much of this is down to the party system itself, which has surely run its day. In fact, in these times of diversity, ideological turbulence and profoundly personal politics, the very idea for most people of handing over their vote for five years to a vague organisation that will only represent a fragment of their views and concerns now seems utterly absurd. Such is the profound way in which society has changed – democracy, once the central pillar of the free world, has degenerated into synonym for self-interest, personal gain and a highly marginalised and divided society.

For Catholics this is no easy place to be, though our faith seems to mandate that we have to participate in this desperately flawed and unrepresentative process of handing over our liberties to political parties every five years, none of whom come close to representing anything like a majority of Catholic concerns.

Over the coming week’s we’re going to be bombarded with voting advice from all areas within the Church, some of it very generalised and familiar, some of it actually very useful in terms of helping us to decide where to place our vote. We all know the generalities, but it hardly seems influential to place these before candidates – after all, isn’t every one going to pledge to reduce poverty, greenhouse gases, social exclusion and improve the Health Service? And even when we can present specific demands for change, all your local representative can do is to nod politely and remind you that you’re voting for a party not a person, and whomever gets in it’s the policies of the winning party that will prevail.

For we Catholics here in the UK this is a huge challenge, as there really is nothing in the main political parties’ constitutions that expresses any great empathy for our moral and societal concerns. Indeed it’s become a sad irony that the very parties that used to provide some refuge for Catholics – for instance Labour and Sinn Fein – have because of their left-leaning liberal and relativist nature become the most antipothetic to Catholic concerns.

If one looks at the kind of advice that’s been distributed over the past half century or so on Catholics and voting, the general subscript has been that Catholics must examine all the political candidates and options presented to them, and essentially cast their vote for the least worst candidate/party.

Given that the Church has presented us with a profoundly moral obligation to vote, it seems rather contradictory to me that it should content itself with such an outcome. I’m really not sure how you’d balance – for instance – a candidate who was pro-euthanasia but was also profoundly committed to reducing local poverty and homelessness. There’s a strong argument to say that as Catholics we shouldn’t even be asked to make such profoundly difficult moral choices, and that in the event that all candidates have profound theological deficiencies, our only recourse ought be to record for ‘none of the above’.

Until quite recently the process of Catholic voting was far less fraught, as the UK had a default faith foundation, and therefore moral and societal difference were largely a matter of degrees and nuances. It was therefore far easier to get past a candidate’s vagaries in favour of an overall acceptance that they were functioning for the broadly common good. Sadly it has become a sign of the deeply troubled times that we live in that the very definition of ‘the common good’ has become divisive, and the very presence of a faith dimension in the public narrative has become enanthema to many who would seek to govern us.

In such circumstance – and until there are some much-needed fundamental changes in the way that we conduct politics – it does look like the best we can do is to state our concerns and hope that some good comes of it somewhere. Then, wherever we eventually place our vote and whomever get in, we’ll be able to say that at least we made our case for a better and more caring society.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian