Making the Lib Dem message on Compassion Meaningful: Ideas for a distinctive Liberal message

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.

The message the public needs to get from Lib Dem conference

The Lib Dems have been through a rough time in the last year and a half and particularly since the last autumn conference. The party have made efforts to improve the situation by changing strategy and some have argued there has been a slight improvement in the polls. However, there is still the familiar complaint that the media is not reporting on the Lib Dems as we would like them to be and so as we go into this conference we need to start thinking about what message we need to give.

Competence and compassion will be the slogan that the Lib Dems will fly under in future elections, arguing they are more economically competent than Labour and more compassionate than the Tories. The message about competence is clearly pegged to the economic strategy of the Coalition Government, whether we believe in it or not. But also, Lib Dem ministers are being seen as effective ministers and as equals to Tory ones and so in many respects the party is meeting its competence agenda. What it is failing to address is the compassion agenda.

I believe the conference message needs to focus on identifying with the public, empathising with people’s lives and talking on a level with people. This needs to be more than show, as it needs to be real for the party. The Lib Dem ministers need to show that they are considering the effects of the Government policies by acknowledging the difficulties some of these policies are creating for people. We can’t pretend that everything the Coalition does is great, even if we are in it. We need to connect with the difficulties people are facing too.

Empathy is difficult to do. When you are under pressure and the focus is on you, it is even harder to look outwards and connect with people. But without this basic first step compassion is impossible. And if we are not seen as compassionate then the party will not recover in the polls, which will be even more the case if we sell ourselves on it.

So advice for those giving key note speeches at conference: speak to people’s concerns, show you understand them, don’t drift into policy or bashing other parties, show some emotion, and recognise mistakes have been made. This will show the human face of the party, something which people are shown less now we are in government.

The Lib Dems new pitch to voters – Competence & Compassion: How to make it meaningful to win over voters

The new pitch to voters by the Lib Dems is now going to be one of “competence and compassion” – arguing they are more economically competent than Labour and more compassionate than the Tories, which is an interesting pitch. So what does it mean in making it meaningful to voters, which needs to happen if it is to become a vote winning strategy?

The Independent offer advice to the Lib Dems that they ‘need to remind themselves, and try to persuade voters, that they retain a unique selling point – a belief in compassion, fairness, equal life chances and a strong society, combined with a caution about the state trying to be the panacea for all problems’.

However, we hear that the Lib Dems are preparing our position on tax for 2020 paving the arguments for the competent strand of Lib Dem thinking and so maybe we should also be looking at where we should be on the compassion strand of Lib Dem thinking too?

So what exactly is compassion? It one interview Denis Thatcher turned to his wife and said ‘Margaret, compassion isn’t one of your favourite words, is it?’ ‘No it isn’t’, remarked the Prime Minister of the day, ‘I find it a very patronising word’. I doubt many will see Thatcher as a compassionate person yet she did indeed see compassion as important. Margaret Thatcher said

efficiency is the ally, not the enemy, of compassion. If we can treat 50 patients next week instead of 40, that’s 10 more patients we have treated. There will always be a finite amount of resource: I have an obligation to get the best value out of that

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. Some will argue that you do not need compassion in politics and there are many politicians who you may consider to have very little compassion so in many ways you do not need it.

Yet, there is a very strong moral case for compassion in politics as well as a tactical one. Without compassion, human sympathy, or emotional identification with people, a grasp of the facts will not necessarily cause you to define the situation politically as one that should be remedied. We can therefore introduce the distinction between humanist and nonhumanist political leadership. Intellect is needed in either case, but compassionate feeling for people, or the lack of it, will determine the extent to which the leader’s knowledge and powers of intellect become, or fail to become, a force for humanist leadership. In the UK all main political parties are seeking humanist leadership and so we are essentially talking about degrees of compassion amongst the different Parties.

However, it is politically expedient to be seen as compassionate as people lend their vote to those they see as more compassionate (all things being equal). It was a vote winner for George W. Bush and Barak Obama and the Tories tried it with ‘compassionate conservatism’ as a strategy in the recent UK General Election. But compassion is more than a strategy to win votes and the Lib Dems need to understand this more now than ever, now it is in Government and if it wishes to trade on its compassion.

The Lib Dems are always looking to reach out beyond political boundaries and compassion is certainly something which will help with that as there are so many advocates already. Perhaps we should evoke the Dalai Lama who writes about the need for a secular compassion, Charles Darwin or Albert Einstein who was perhaps one of the biggest supporters of the need for compassion in modern life:

Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security – Albert Einstein

There are many people who speak for compassion but perhaps the first thing the Party could do is sign up to the Charter for Compassion which fits well into the Lib Dem Constitution. The Charter 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.

There is widespread support for the Charter in places such as Australian, the UAE and Malaysia. 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”. This has in itself spawned a whole range of local, on-the-ground initiatives to promote compassion which can be seen on the compassion network and offers many policy initiatives which would fit very well into community politics and the Lib Dems localism and community agendas.

But there is a much bigger reason the Lib Dems need compassion other than it being a moral cause, a vote winner and an initiative builder. There is a fascinating video of the Charter for Compassion talking at the UN on TED Talks. Its conclusion is this reason. Einstein went on to say that compassion should be seen as a spiritual technology, and mankind needs this technology as much as all the other technologies which have connected us, and set before us the terrifying and wondrous possibility of actually becoming one human race.

How Canada’s junior coalition partner went on to win more votes and seats – revisited

A while ago I wrote a post titled Lessons from successful politicians: How Canada’s junior coalition partner went on to win more votes and seats. Now the Canadian result is in we can see that

The leftwing New Democratic party, led by Jack Layton, nearly tripled their strength to 102 seats, emerging for the first time as the official opposition.

We can see some similarities with the Lib Dems with the NDP being a left leaning party where the leader Jack Layton

was upbeat from the start, urging voters to abandon the larger two parties and give him a chance.

However, the NDP is traditionally more of the labor movement with union backing. We could dismiss the canadian election as offering nothing to learn from as the centre liberal party’s vote dropped from 2nd largest party to 3rd. However, how Jack Layton did it matters as I wrote in my previous post. There is always something to learn from how people do things and not what they do.

Jack Layton’s public image was one of a more open, honest and compassionate leader than the others and this has paid off. He was seen as different and the NDP-mania as it may have been seen in the UK was sustained until the election. Perhaps I should look into how they did that?

A secular vision of compassion for practical use in politics

Understanding a secular vision of compassion is vital if we are to use it in any meaningful manner to improve the places where we live. The Charter for Compassion offers some excellent views on this and this video from TED Talks by Robert Wright uses evolutionary biology and game theory to explain why we appreciate the Golden Rule (“Do unto others…”), why we sometimes ignore it and why there’s hope that, in the near future, we might all have the compassion to follow it. It gives us some interesting thoughts on creating policy…

Lib Dem Councils – making them Compassionate Councils?

The Big Society has opened many opportunities for local authorities and communities. However, not all are going in the same direction and some are not happy with the direction their councils are taking. The Big Society is less a vision than a gesture. With local authorities having a brutal cut in their budgets it essentially comes with no principles with which to guide those who wish to take up the shift from power to local areas.  There is no resulting vision of what Britain will look like from this initiative. This is why I do not believe a ‘liberal society’ is the same thing as a ‘Big Society’.

What this gesture has achieved is a great way of the conservatives taking credit for the idea which allowed for any improvements in local areas; it also allows them to distance themselves from things which do not work on the account of localism. A win-win situation for the conservatives.

However, I believe there is an opportunity for local authorities to take the initiative back. I have recently written about the need for leadership based on compassion and the recent grassroots movement of the Charter for Compassion. Earlier this year there was a 10 Year Campaign for Compassionate Cities started by the Compassionate Action Network .

In April 2010, Seattle became the first city in the world to affirm the Charter for Compassion and give them a distinctiveness from other initiatives. The Mayor of Seattle and the City Council affirmed the Charter for Compassion and proclaimed Seattle a “Compassionate City”. The city has a group of committed people who meet with citizens, non-profits, educators, youth, businesses, and others to find ideas of how to make the city a more compassionate place. They then share news, events, ideas, and resources with cities around the world in the Compassionate Cities group on the compassion network.

They have two events each year called “Compassionate Seattle: It’s Up to Us!”. Their events have been sponsored by TED, Fetzer Institute, Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, Seeds of Compassion, and the Center for Spiritual Living.

I have called on the Liberal Democrats to recognise the similarities in the value and spirit of the Charter for Compassion in the Liberal Democrat constitution. I believe we could give ourselves a more distinctive voice in local government by Lib Dem local councillors and Lib Dem Councils taking up the Charter for Compassion and setting up British Compassionate Cities/Councils.

It offers a the party a different route to our distinctive voice, it taps into an established grassroots movement, and it offers opportunities to genuinely make the places we live a much better place to be. It offers a principle by which to use the Big Society (as many new social enterprises, private companies, and community groups will be the benefactors and not necessarily the local councils) – 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.

The Charter for Compassion

The Charter for Compassion is as follows:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

A call for the Lib Dems to support the ‘Charter for Compassion’

Compassion has not been a mainstream activity of politics, partly because it has been monopolised by religion. However, there is a growing voice for a secular view of compassion not least from the Dalai Lama but also from many other areas of public life. The TED talks have been influential to many and an idea about compassion recently won the TED Prize.  From this has grown the Charter for Compassion

The Charter for Compassion 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.

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 they are 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 organization 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 with developing our multi-cultural society; and that the idea came from Britain.

Those who developed the idea believe it leads to a more tolerant society, a more understanding society, a better society. This movement needs a voice in the UK. I have recently written about compassion being an electoral asset among many other benefits and so any politician or political party who takes up this cause will surely be rewarded (providing their actions are not contradictory).

I believe that this movement fits best with the Liberal cause:

We look forward to a world in which all people share the same basic rights, in which they live together in peace and in which their different cultures will be able to develop freely… Upholding these values of individual and social justice, we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation and oppose all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality – Liberal Democrat Constitution

Compared to the Charter for Compassion they have the same focus:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures… to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect. – Charter for 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 emphasize the compassionate ethos, they will fail the test of our time.

We need leadership based on compassion

Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth and current Dala...

Image via Wikipedia

If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin – Charles Darwin

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 they have genuinely made the country a better place for all e.g. Mandela or Kennedy. A politics of compassion is therefore possible and some would argue necessary in order to address human security needs.

The Dalai Lama has called for a secular approach to compassion stressing that compassion reaches beyond individual creeds and beliefs. The need for mutual respect and friendship, the care and education of children, and ongoing dialogue for conflict resolution are all compassionate courses as well as political ones.

While it may have been seen as a ‘fringe’ activity stressing compassion in politics there are many examples where compassion has been and continues to be a defining element in elections e.g. see Obama’s Presidential election. And where we have struggled to engage some sections of the country maybe a more compassionate approach offers them something to vote for. Compassion at the end of the day is universal and does not belong to any particular party. Indeed, it ensures that you are more able to work with those you do not agree with to achieve what you believe to be right (see Kennedy).

it is a mistake to use a person’s political beliefs as the litmus test of his compassion. If you want to determine how compassionate an individual is, you are wasting your time if you ask for whom he voted

Some have argued for compassion in politics arguing for

(1) attentiveness to the needs of vulnerable people who are suffering,

(2) an active listening to the voices of the vulnerable, and

(3) open, compassionate, and appropriate responses to particular needs.

The Charter for Compassion is a grassroots movement urging a more compassionate approach to politics, religion and public life and is something we should all consider supporting.

When compassion is lacking, activities are in danger of becoming destructive. – H.H. The Dalai Lama

Lessons from successful politicians: Bashir Ahmad who engaged mintority ethnic communities


In 2007 Bashir Ahmad became the first Asian and first Muslim member of the Scottish parliament when he was elected one of the four SNP regional members representing Glasgow. Four years later he was elected an MSP. He took his seat at Holyrood wearing traditional Pakistani dress and swore his oath in both English and Urdu. He served on various cross-party groups, for human rights and civil liberties, for carers, for older people, age and ageing, and the group for Tartan Day (see Guardian Obituary)

Bashir Ahmad has sadly died but he was revered for his character and his trail blazing active compassion for a better, more inclusive society. Many people have come forward since his death to tell how they had been touched by his warmth and kindness.

If we all allow our natural compassion and humanity to be a factor in how we behave as politicians, perhaps that will be a fitting tribute to Bashir Ahmad – Anne McLaughlin MSP

Bashir Ahmad has since been honoured with awards recognising his contribution in Politics. Since his death, the prominent Minority Ethnic Awards have named an award in his honour known as ‘The Bashir Ahmad Spirit of Scotland Award’.

Compassion in politics has not always been seen to mix, but he has shown how it can; how we can affect people by compassion and how it can engage elements of society usually disengaged by politics. He has shown that compassion can be an electoral asset.

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