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Kind Fest: Compassion in Politics?

It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you today as the co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Compassionate Politics. For those of you not familiar with our Parliamentary system, APPGs consist of members from different parties and from both Houses. We aim to work collaboratively together to address specific issues; in this case we want to shift the culture of politics to one that’s more compassionate.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH OUR POLITICAL SYSTEM?

My co-Chair Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and I convened the APPG on Compassionate Politics with the support of Matt & Jennifer and the Compassion in Politics team back in 2019 as we shared the same concerns, as did many of our colleagues, about the increased divisiveness in politics which had steadily grown since 2016.

Many of us recognised that the division and discord being played out in Parliament, and also in some local authorities, was negatively impacting on our communities and how people were treating each other. A climate of fear, hostility and blame has been emanating from our politics. There was another effect: an escalating lack of trust in politics and politicians. A recent CiP poll showed that 7 in 10 people don’t trust anything politicians say. 9 in 10 don’t think politicians have their interests at heart and 2 in 3 feel completely powerless over the decisions being made at Westminster. This incredibly disturbing for the health of our democracy.

However, as much as there are kindred spirits across the political spectrum, we’ve had a party-political system for centuries in this country which has been largely based on tribalism and narrow party rivalries, on making the electorate believe that each party has the answers to make their life better/fairer/safer for them and, unfortunately, negative campaigning has been seen by some to be part of that.

Negative campaigning has been successfully aided by a negative and partisan media, again, over many years. But over the last 16 years or so we’ve had another dimension: the wild west that is social media, where there is little policing of unlawful content by either the platforms or law enforcement agencies, let alone disinformation or misinformation; even legal but harmful content which includes platforms pushing information on suicide to school-age children is apparently off limits. Collectively, these exponentially ramp up the negativity, and even the hate.

SO WHAT SHOULD WE DO ABOUT IT?

Many of you will already know that as human beings we have an immense and innate capacity for compassion & kindness: it’s what drives us to care for our family, look out for our friends, and help our neighbours. Within our communities, it can be nurtured and enabled, or it can be stifled and suppressed. The key to cultivating this compassion and kindness is leadership: leadership in our schools, leadership at work and, fundamentally leadership by politicians.

Again, as many of you will also know, ‘Compassion’ as defined by psychologists, involves an awareness of suffering with a commitment to alleviate and prevent it. Compassion is built on empathy, sympathy, and understanding – a tuning into the experience of self and others. Secondly, it requires commitment. Compassion doesn’t zero-in on the distress of others only to turn away, castigate, or blame. It seeks to understand and learn. Thirdly, it requires action – and action not only to alleviate the symptoms of suffering but to uproot their cause.

The recent pledges from the new Prime Minister and Chancellor for compassion and compassionate Conservatism are welcome but what do they mean?

To govern effectively through compassion will require a commitment to not only help those who are suffering today but also create conditions in which everyone can thrive tomorrow. Those instincts need to be activated and championed because, right now, we live according to quite alternate values. Refugees, social security users, and others are being decried, vilified, and shamed. This approach not only weakens us as a society, but it is also injurious to political engagement, to our very democracy.

A compassionate Government would recognise our common humanity, and that all human beings are equal. And within this, a compassionate immigration system in a country which upholds the rule of law, would abide by our obligations under the UN Refugee Convention which the UK is not only a signatory to, but helped to develop, after the horrors of the Holocaust.

As a Labour politician I would argue that the market doesn’t have all the answers to the economic crisis millions are facing, and that the immediate compassionate response to this crisis would be to recognise and address the fact that the richest 1% of individuals pay 12.5% of their income in tax compared with the 50% lowest earners who pay 25.5% of their income in tax. Similarly, I would argue that the tax from corporations has flatlined over the last 12 years at about 2% and that some companies, for example, energy companies like BP have reported their highest quarterly profits for 14 years. Their figures are eclipsed by Shell who delivered second quarter profits of over £9bn.

I have argued that a compassionate Government would reflect this in their Autumn Statement next week.

There’s so much more policy-wise that could reflect compassion in the Government’s response to these very real issues and hardships so many in our country face.

But hand-in-hand with this, is an effort to reform the culture of our politics. Good policies can only come from good politics and if our government is truly committed to a compassionate future, it needs to create the right environment for such a future to grow and prosper. That has to start with the conduct of those in high office. We need to put the Ministerial and Members’ codes on a statutory footing so that they can be universally read and be properly enforced. The Prime Minister needs to appoint and then empower the government ethics advisor to launch independent investigations into ministerial conduct and strengthen the rules to prevent politicians from wilfully lying to the public.

Compassionate governance also means working alongside those we seek to serve, not dictating policies from the centre. We need to look at how we can reconnect politicians to the people we serve by shifting power away from Westminster. Establishing citizen and constituency assemblies as part of developing active and empowered citizens would be an important start.

Finally, this crisis in politics is not just a UK phenomenon; democracies across the world are facing the same issues. The last year’s insurrection at the Capitol is just one example of this. I would urge the like-minded to work together internationally for a new and compassionate politics.

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