Our politics is hitting rock bottom – what can we do about it?

Gerry Mitchell

Friday, 02 August 2019

Compass was recently invited to a roundtable hosted by Compassion in Politics, a campaign group formed in 2018 by Jennifer Nadel and Matt Hawkins out of a deep concern that values such as compassion and kindness seem to have no place in political life and that, unsurprisingly, the public have low levels of trust in politicians. They campaign to ‘change politics for good’, by proposing that politicians take the ‘organised combat’ and winner-takes-all mentality out of the political system and replace it with more compassionate and respectful ways of working.  

Accompanying this cultural shift, they propose a Compassion Act, ensuring that no future law can make the lives of vulnerable people or of future generations worse and that all new laws should be checked against a compassion threshold, comprised of two fundamental questions:

  1. Is this policy causing harm to those who are in the most vulnerable circumstances? 
  2. Does it take the next generation into account? Will it cause harm in the future? 

According to Jennifer Nadel, without addressing both the political culture that informs the formulation of policy and the substantive policies themselves, there will be no progress on any of the underlying systemic problems we face. 

Compassion in Politics was initially launched in Oxford and has already held discussions in Parliament about the Compassion Act, hosted by 5 MPs from different parties. It has growing cross-party support from peers and MPs across 6 political parties, as well as partners such as The Jo Cox Foundation, which wants politicians to sign up to an ethical code of conduct similar to the Hippocratic Oath that doctors are bound by. 

Andrew Stone, a Labour peer actively promoting the campaign, plans to set up a cross-party and multi-faith group to arrive at a set of visions and values that would inform this code. Lord Stone is also in discussions with Hansard about forming an independent compassion group, which will “make it easier to do the right thing”, creating legislation digests which will guide peers on how to vote compassionately. 

The Jo Cox Foundation’s political activity is complemented by grassroots work to build positive narratives with the aim of building stronger communities, a better public life and fairer world. Organiser Jessica Leach says that last year, its annual ‘Great Get Together’ was comprised of 11,000 events across the UK. The foundation’s ambition now is to grow this from a once-a-year event to all-year-round ones, with a strategic focus on more involvement from young people.  

The roundtable discussion was planned to coincide with the results of a survey, commissioned by Compassion in Politics and carried out by Opinium, asking for responses to some simple but concrete initiatives designed to ‘ramp up in the public consciousness’ that politicians have the political will to make political culture ‘less toxic’ by a shift in their own behaviour. Respondents were asked to comment on the following ideas:  

1) That MPs regularly report to constituents via for example a Constituents Board that would see MPs and their constituents meeting 4 times a year (It was agreed later in the roundtable that these would have to be representative, with members chosen through a sortition process, similar to jury service, to avoid the perennial problem of the same local representatives dominating these forums.)

2) That there is public consultation on the creation of a Public Standards Board.

3) That Government Ministers who are in charge of departments should carry out work placements in the organisations for which their departments are accountable. For example, a Secretary of State for Health and Social Care would volunteer in a hospital for a month.

4) That all Ministers carry out a minimum level of work experience outside parliament during their time in office. 

Opinium found that all 4 schemes were strongly supported by those that took the poll, regardless of their age, the region in which they live or their Brexit vote choice. The proposals were supported as a means by which Government could show that it is not the distant and bureaucratic institution that many feel it is at present. 

Presenting the poll’s findings, Adam Drummond of Opinium commented that the perception of government as a body that “represents me, responds, involves me in decision making … is for people like me” is very low. It is the sentiment of not being listened to, which accompanies the low levels of trust in politics and, that many politicians and commentators have understood as the take-away message from the 2016 EU referendum.

What these findings and the discussions around the table communicated loud and clear is that all levels of the political system need to take responsibility for building better interaction into their practice of politics. And that key to this will be learning how to have conversations with those who hold different views about controversial issues.  One take-away from the roundtable meeting is that these skills will be learnt from different areas of life outside the formal political sphere and from people in other countries too. The process must be pluralistic and internationalist. It will involve, as Compass’ 45-Degree theory of change outlines, the top-down state learning new ways of working from bottom-up grassroots initiatives and using top-down resources to amplify those new ways of doing politics.  

Better interaction will come from applying (feminist) politics to our system making it more personal, collaborative rather than combative, less hierarchical and more participative. This has of course already happened in other parts of Europe. It will also come, as Bruce Nixon points out in another Compass blog, from being honest about mistakes, which will also mitigate against politicians who commit to these changes being very easily portrayed as self-righteous.

Techniques traditionally used in psychology are also being used in the political context. Compassion-focused, family and mindfulness-based approaches are just some of the therapies being applied.Matt Browne, a strategist at the Global Progress Summit, and former director of Policy Network, spoke at the roundtable about the successful use of family-therapy-based techniques in the United States to reduce political polarisation. Better Angels is a national citizens’ movement bringing Democrats and Republicans together, treating division as a given and trying to foster conversations across it by addressing perception gaps and stereotypes and moving away from a binary view of each other. 

Those who work in conflict resolution have also started to apply their approaches to the political world and more specifically to the piloting of Brexit dialogues. OpenEdge is using restorative methods to develop a compassionate decision-making framework, takes discussions back to participants’ personal lived experience, encourages them to talk about themselves and to feel that they matter. It draws on convergence facilitation, again already used in the States with great success, by facilitators such as Mila Kashtan at the Center for Efficient Collaboration, and here in the UK by Perry Walker of TalkShop.  The work of the Leeds Poverty Truth Commission was also quoted by Sophie Docker from OpenEdge as an example of this type of approach.  It is a method that does not shy away from exposing different views on tricky issues, but instead encourages participants to confront the highest point of divergence and then reach agreement having done that.  

Jennifer Nadel also talked roundtable participants through a technique known as community visioning, used in the Imagine Chicago Project in the States, and being developed here in the UK.  Through directed group practices, participants are encouraged to develop a shared vision of, for example, the Britain they’d like to live in in 10 years’ time. Jennifer will be piloting the technique in events held in London as part of the 2020 Bloomsbury Festival and is hoping to roll it out across the UK later in the year.

While not taking away from the potential transformative change that a cultural shift in politics can achieve, Klina Jordan, co-founder of Make Votes Matter, urged us not to lose sight of the structural causes of our political division and to campaign for proportional representation (PR) precisely because it is a more compassionate system than the binary ‘organised combat’ we have now. Make Votes Matter has seen a recent surge in grassroots activity, coming from a growing recognition that democratic renewal, which includes new political behaviour – is a precondition for any systemic change.  As Klina said: “We don’t live in a democracy … and unless we change that we won’t be able to stop climate breakdown.”

By the end of the roundtable, we had committed to developing five strands of campaigning:

1) Building interactions e.g. developing a UK version of Better Angels

2) Developing Standards of Public Life 

3) Co-ordinating further all-party parliamentary campaigning on making the policy and practice of politics more compassionate

4) Practices and initiatives that further develop a shared vision of a new political settlement and piloting some of these

5) Political and civic education on democratic renewal and the role of political culture. 

All of these elements of further work coalesce with the building blocks of a Good Society that Compass campaigns for, and which “embrace not just the material, but the ethical, emotional and cultural.”  They centre around a desire to address the loss of trust and faith in the political system by encouraging more compassion which in turn will engender a political culture that has greater levels of trust. And as Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, has recently been quoted as saying “Politics will only change at the speed of trust.” 

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