This week, as the roof of Notre Dame burned, rumours spread on social media that the fire had been started by an Islamic terror cell. It’s a measure of how successful the psychological binding of the far-right has been that so many people’s neural networks are now wired to go straight from a feeling of fear and anger to Islam (and often women, the young, and other ethnic minorities) without so much as a cursory check-in with the rational part of their brains.
I witnessed the same thing happen this week when Nigel Farage spoke at the launch of his new Brexit Party. Two years ago at a similar event Farage promised to “pick up a rifle” if Brexit was not delivered. Fast forward to 2019 and the language has become more subtle, though no less sinister. On this occasion the former UKIP leader said he wanted to use the upcoming European elections to “put the fear of God” into MPs, leaving it open to his follower’s interpretation just how such an atmosphere of fear might be created. Benefiting from years spent forging very blatant associations between, say, Islam and terror or politicians and violence, Farage can now be much more suggestive in his turns of phrase, leaving his audience to do the rest of the work for him (and shoulder the blame when the worst extremes do decide to act).
The hatred and division stoked by Farage and his apparatchiks was one of the reasons why Matt Hawkins and I founded Compassion in Politics. We chose as our slogan ‘changing politics for good’ because we recognised that it was ‘good’ that was so sadly missing from just about every major political issue ranging from the bedroom tax to universal credit, climate change, the Windrush scandal, the government’s response to the refugee crisis and much, much more. We touched a nerve. Within a few months we’d won the backing from MPs from seven different political parties, academics including Noam Chomsky, AC Grayling, Bill McKibben, and Peter Singer, and activists such as Cerys Matthews, Ruby Wax, Lady Phyll, and Helen Pankhurst.
So imagine our consternation when Farage launched his Brexit Party last Friday using our slogan. ‘Change Politics for Good’ is positioned centrally across his website just as ‘changing politics for good’ is across ours and was repeated ad nauseum at the launch. The potential breach of copyright (intentional or not) is the least of it. Far more sinister is the realisation that Farage’s messaging machine has skillfully manoeuvred itself into the space that rightfully belongs to those who oppose him. Unlike “take back control” or “leave means leave” this is an inherently positive, proactive, forward-looking statement. The political chameleon has realised there is public hunger for ‘good’ and has set about co-opting it to his own ends.
There is a desperate need for some “good” in our politics. And, if we who oppose Farage fail to take ownership of that ‘need’ and the narrative and actions that will lead to it being met, we risk being blindsided (again) by the strength of an anti-democratic movement led by Farage and his allies.
Here at Compassion in politics we are attempting to provide a mechanism and roadmap to do just that. We believe that ‘compassion’ - the ultimate manifestation of good (being the feeling of empathy for others accompanied by action) is a unifying principle behind which parliamentarians (and international, regional and local politicians) who want to heal our broken system and restore public confidence can gather. Instead of voting in response to the demands of their whips or the gnawings of their own ambition, if each politician (of whatever party) were to vote on the basis of compassion, the changing of politics for good could begin with immediate effect.
In addition, we are working with parliamentarians, academics, and activists to forge a programme of specific policies built around compassion. Central to this program will be the creation of the world’s first ‘compassion’ law - a constitutionally binding Bill which says no future legislation can leave those living in the most vulnerable circumstances any worse off or benefit the current generation at the expense of the next generation.
This is just the start of what we are hoping to achieve. The world around us has offered plenty of apt metaphors lately for the state of our political system: black holes, fires, and hurricanes. What matters now is what we learn and how we start to rebuild. There is a lot of good people out there who need to hear a positive alternative and who can become our messengers for change. Let’s help them by giving them something to aim for, some hope, and some new stories to tell. Join us and let’s change politics for good.