This was published in the November Liberator magazine which you can access for a short time here.
What is the point in voting for the Liberal Democrats? The May 2011 elections gave a distinctive answer – “I am not quite sure”. So the Independent (9 May 2011) offered some advice to the party to “retain a unique selling point – a belief in compassion” and the party may have taken them up on this advice.
Competence and compassion will be the slogan that the Liberal Democrats fly under in future elections, arguing that they are more economically competent than Labour and more compassionate than the Tories.
We see the Liberal Democrats making preparations to flesh out the competence strand with their tax proposals for 2020 underway, but very little in the way of fleshing out the compassionate strand. This may be because compassion has not been seen to provide a tangible benefit beyond a positive perception of those who espouse it. But perhaps we have missed the real benefits of what compassion can provide politics.
On realist terms, politics is about power, security and order, and the question of whether politics can practice compassion is often seen as irrelevant. However, where politicians are seen as compassionate, they have not only been successful politicians but have also genuinely made the country a better place for all. A politics of compassion is therefore possible and some would argue necessary to address human security needs.
WHAT IS COMPASSION?
Compassion is a concept that can bring up strong reactions in many – from Thatcher who said it was “a very patronising word” to Albert Einstein who said that “our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion”. Yet if it is Liberal Democrat selling point and we are going to sell ourselves on it, then we must make it mean something, otherwise there will be no point to it.
Despite Thatcher’s thoughts on the word, she still believed she was being compassionate, stating that “efficiency is the ally, not the enemy, of compassion”. But this misunderstands the concept of compassion. Compassion is to recognise the suffering of others, then take action to help, and is very much ‘suffering with’. Efficiency drives do not show that you understand someone’s situation, let alone feel ‘with’ them, and there are many who will argue that you do not need compassion in politics to be successful or create a better society. Yet there is a very strong case for compassion in politics and one that the Liberal Democrats should meaningfully embrace.
COMPASSION AS VOTE WINNER
While stressing compassion in politics may have been seen as a ‘fringe’ activity, there are many examples where compassion has been, and continues to be, a defining element in elections.
Jack Layton was the leader of the New Democratic Party in Canada and took the party from being a minor party to become the official opposition for the first time in the party’s history in 2011. The interesting thing about Jack Layton was how he was seen by the voters. A poll by Angus Reid Global Monitor asked voters to describe the party leaders. All were described as intelligent but, with the exception of Layton, they were also described as arrogant and out of touch, while Layton was described as compassionate and down to earth. This offered him a unique standing in Canadian politics. His leadership was a success for his party and turned the tide on its electoral fortunes; the view that he was compassionate played a significant part.
During his election night for Governor of Texas in 1998, George W. Bush announced his desire for a ‘compassionate conservatism’, only to be ridiculed by many at the time. While it was a controversial election, he campaigned on this theme heavily in the 2000 presidential election campaign, which swung many non-traditional Republican voters to vote for Bush. In such a tight race, this proved to be decisive. Fast forward eight years to the 2008 presidential election campaign and we saw opinion polls showing the presidential hopefuls on similar footings but with Barack Obama being viewed as the more compassionate candidate.
Tony Blair knew when he took over as leader of the Labour Party that he needed to be seen as compassionate and talked extensively about it in the run up to the 1997 general election. David Cameron tried his own version of compassionate conservatism in the 2010 general election and, while he did not win the election, he did manage to achieve the best result the Tories have had since 1992. The point about compassion being a vote winner is the fact that it reaches to a majority on both sides of the political spectrum as well as beyond traditional political boundaries; the Dalai Lama, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein have all been advocates for a secular compassion in society.
COMPASSION AS A STRATEGY
Jack Layton and Tony Blair’s skill was to turn compassion as an ideal into something more meaningful, so people could see it put into action. Here in the UK, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the minimum wage were just some examples of how this was framed. Bush and Cameron do not quite have the same skill and have not tried to keep it on the agenda. This offers lessons for the Liberal Democrats to ensure that compassion is right at the heart of policy making, otherwise the claim that they are a compassionate party will only breed contempt and mistrust.
There are also lessons for the Liberal Democrats from Ted Kennedy, one of the longest-serving senators in US history who has also been considered to be one of the greatest. For Ted Kennedy, it was his compassion that gave him his outlook, the causes he fought for and how he went about his business. He played a major role in passing many laws that have had a dramatic effect on people’s lives, including apartheid, disability discrimination, AIDS care and civil rights. He stood out from others in his party, working with anyone, even those outside of his philosophical comfort zone. Compassion gives a sense of purpose that transcends party political lines to strive for a better society. It gives a framework on which to work with others, even when you do not agree with their politics. It provides principles by which to guide our policies.
As the Liberal Democrats have been seen as compassionate, and they have now begun to market compassion as a selling point of the party, they need to start making it mean more than just words or gestures. The Liberal Democrats need to begin to define what kind of society they offer and how compassion fits into this. A liberal society is not the same thing as a big society as there are no principles which guide a big society. Without guiding principles, a big society could mean anything, but a liberal society is a compassionate one.
SUPPORT THE CHARTER FOR COMPASSION
The first thing the Liberal Democrats should do is sign up to the Charter for Compassion, which is an international grassroots movement promoting a secular vision of compassion for the modern world. It is a document that transcends religious, ideological, and national difference. Supported by leading thinkers from many traditions, the Charter inspires worldwide community-based acts of compassion. The Charter demands people take action, recognising that our present policies – political, financial, environmental – are no longer sustainable, and that if any government, religion or person does not emphasise the compassionate ethos, they will fail the test of our time.
This Charter has been developed to be a grassroots movement so that everyone can get involved. It has begun to grow widespread support, with the Australian parliament recognising the Charter for Compassion and working to get it included in the educational curriculum. In the UAE, it has been introduced to the rulers and imams of the Arab world and they are beginning to sign up. In Malaysia, the former prime minister has formed an organisation devoted to implementing the Charter, and there are similar motions afoot in Singapore. It is a shame that there is not such recognition for it in Britain, considering the issues we have experienced in society; and that the idea came from Britain in the first place.
In April 2010, Seattle became the first city in the world to affirm the Charter for Compassion and the Mayor of Seattle proclaimed Seattle a ‘Compassionate City’. The city has a group of committed people who meet citizens, non-profit organisations, educators, youth, businesses, and others to find ideas of how to make the city a more compassionate place. This has in itself spawned a whole range of local, onthe-ground initiatives to promote compassion and offers many policy initiatives that would fit very well into community politics and the Liberal Democrats’ localism and community agendas. There are distinct similarities between the Charter for Compassion and the Liberal Democrat constitution, and it offers the Liberal Democrats a chance to make the theoretical idea of compassion a practical reality.
It would provide a more distinctive voice in local government by Liberal Democrat councillors and councils taking up the Charter for Compassion and setting up British Compassionate Cities/Councils. It taps into an established grassroots movement, which attracts many who may otherwise not get involved in politics, as well as those who might. But more importantly, it offers opportunities to make the places we live genuinely much better places to live. It offers a principle of how to use the Big Society – and it is this which is closer to a Liberal Society than the one currently on offer by the Conservatives, as compassion is a virtue and the cornerstone of greater social interconnectedness
COMPASSION AS AN IDEOLOGY
Yet there is a bigger reason for supporting compassion in politics than just a tactical one; there is also a very strong moral case for compassion in politics. Without compassion, human sympathy or emotional identification with people, our politics would be a cold and brutal affair. Nelson Mandela could have taken a very different path to the one he did but he said that he learnt compassion from others while he was in prison. As President of South Africa, Mandela set out to transform the nation through compassion, which sought to bring understanding to those wronged by injustice as well as those accused of perpetrating the injustice.
So while technology moves rapidly forward with ever increasing ways to connect people, perhaps we should take a lesson in politics from Einstein. He believed compassion should be seen as a spiritual technology, and one which mankind needs as much as all other technologies that have connected us, as compassion is the only technology which provides us with the terrifying and wondrous possibility of actually becoming one human race.