Forward-thinking countries are using legislation to make politics more compassionate. What would happen if the UK did the same?
“OR-DER!” Close your eyes and you can still hear John Bercow’s infamous bellow echo out across parliament. As the former Speaker of the House of Commons, he presided over debates in Westminster during the Brexit years.
Maintaining control of the MPs was tough enough at the best of times but when British politics seemed to be coming apart at the seams, his distinctive chamber-filling howl became as much a part of the fractious political landscape as the arguments, division and violence on the streets.
Trust in our politicians has plummeted to an all-time low. But a new book, How Compassion can Transform our Politics, Economy and Society, edited by the co-founders of the cross-party organisation Compassion in Politics, delves into how kindness can improve how we’re governed.
“There’s this basic assumption that politics is a horrible, nasty game,” says Matt Hawkins, one of the thinktank’s directors. “It’s about beating down the opposition, encouraging the greed of business, not giving people handouts, pushing refugees back at the border. That filters into the way we think about policy.”
Co-written with writer Jennifer Nadel, the two believe that there are better ways to run the country, and since 2018 their group has developed proposals to make the UK political system more compassionate. They also create policy ideas built on kindness and inclusion, taking inspiration from successful examples.
“Jacinda [Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand] is an absolutely wonderful example of a compassionate leader,” believes Hawkins. “She is out there being herself, being kind, caring, compassionate… and changing the tenor of the political debate at the same time.”
Building blocks for a more compassionate future
In the three years since it began, Compassion in Politics’ push for change has garnered support from across the house. Baroness Warsi, Matt Hancock MP and Caroline Lucas MP are among more than 50 parliamentarians from six parties to back it so far.
While it isn’t yet in a position to make any large-scale changes to the political system, the individual, single-issue campaigns it promotes are seen as “the building blocks” for a more compassionate political sphere.
“We try to be cross-party,” says Hawkins. “We have got more Labour and Lib Dem support than we do other parties, but… we work with some absolutely inspiring Conservative MPs, people like Tracey Crouch, who really speak out and really do want the best for people that they represent.”
With a growing toxicity surrounding public debate, they’ve spearheaded Stop the Hate, which aimed to reduce online abuse by implementing reforms for the Online Harms Bill, while their petition to make lying in politics illegal was signed by nearly 200,000 people.
More than 100 MPs endorsed Compassion in Politics’ campaign for a new Code of Conduct in parliament too; one that would hold MPs to putting the country above political divides and avoid language or behaviour that incited hate or encouraged disrespect.
You have to set a line in the sand of what is and what isn’t acceptable. That takes time and involves a cultural change
“Politicians get used to receiving an awful lot of abuse and criticism,” says Hawkins. “A lot of them say: ‘I came in with so many values, so many motivations, but I just feel my soul has been crushed by working in politics.”
Following the harrowing murder of sitting MP David Amess – only a few years after the killing of Jo Cox MP – a record number of parliamentarians signed up to Compassion in Politics. “When a big event happens, you’ll get a flurry of people who get completely disillusioned with the way politics is run and they want to come on board,” says Hawkins.
Studies have shown that kindness can be contagious, but aside from offering MPs solidarity, research opportunities and a chance to participate in campaigns, how does putting compassion front and centre in politics actually work?
Hawkins and Nadel ultimately want to implement a Compassion Act, which would ensure that no future government could introduce a policy that would either reduce the health and wellbeing of the most vulnerable, or benefit current generations at the expense of future ones.
Similar legislation is already in place in Canada and New Zealand – laws that effectively establish a framework for policy decisions to help guide governments towards outcomes that improve the wellbeing of their citizens.
“They are transformative,” says Hawkins. “The Wellbeing Budget in New Zealand is a good example. They haven’t created a new pot of money, they are simply saying: ‘We need to make sure that a large proportion of our spending is spent in a way that improves the wellbeing of New Zealanders.’”
In 2015, the devolved Welsh government was the first in the UK to implement something similar with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. It requires all Welsh public bodies to ensure that the decisions they make today don’t compromise the Welsh citizens of tomorrow.
The rest of the UK appears unlikely to follow suit anytime soon. But that hasn’t stopped Compassion in Politics from trying to foster kindness throughout the chamber and improve the public’s view on the MPs we vote in.
The team has just launched Across the Benches, a podcast that brings together politicians from two parties to discuss what they have in common. It reminds the public that MPs are real people too. Indeed, real people, with parenting and family duties just like a lot of the general public. Compassion in Politics recently came out in support of the Labour MP Stella Creasy, after she was reprimanded for taking her newborn baby into the Commons.
“I think you just have to set a line in the sand of what is and what isn’t acceptable,” says Hawkins. “That takes time and it involves a cultural change and we’re keen to do whatever we can to make that happen.”
Main image: Onsf1974