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Should compassion be an election issue?

Compassion isn’t the property of Labour or the Conservatives, but when both parties embrace it does it mean anything at all?

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It may seem unusual for political parties to embrace compassion in their political manifestos. However, that is precisely what many parties are doing in the UK General Election, but why? Isn’t compassion the preserve of health care professionals, saints and Buddhists? And aren’t there problems in relying on compassion for making policy and law?

The Conservative Party Manifesto states that the Tories will “offer you the safest and most compassionate care in the world.” David Cameron launched the manifesto by saying that “what we're announcing today is the modern, compassionate Conservative version”—in reference to the plan to lower the threshold at which a person pays income tax. Elsewhere, increasing reference is being made to compassionate conservatism to reinvigorate the prospect of a second term for the Tories.

Ian Birrell, former speechwriter to the UK Prime Minister, wrote days before the manifesto was launched that Cameron needed to re-impose his “compassionate credentials.” If the Tory leader could “prove that his conservatism is compassionate rather than individualistic,” said Conservative Party activist Tim Montgomerie, “he can still secure that last-minute swing.’ And columnist Danny Finkelstein has claimed that Labour doesn’t have a monopoly on compassion.

Clearly, Conservatives are organising their campaign around compassion. What of the other parties?

Labour’s recent electoral broadcast by Hobbit star Martin Freeman claimed that voting Labour was a choice in favour of a set of values that include compassion, community and decency. This prompted Finkelstein’s retort, but the contest goes much deeper. Labour’s manifesto claims that “as a country we value compassion,” suggesting that recent government policies threaten this situation.

The UK Independence Party (UKIP) represents what appears to be an electoral compassion bandwagon. Its manifesto makes no less than three references to the concept. UKIP prefaces its policy on stricter immigration controls by stating that “Britain is a compassionate, caring nation.” In committing to bringing back the State Enrolled Nurse, the party says it will “put care and compassion back at the heart of nursing”—adding that it will seek to improve standards of care for the elderly because the vulnerable “must be treated with compassion and dignity.”

Neither the Green Party nor the Liberal Democrats, nor putative coalition partners the Scottish National Party (SNP), refer to compassion in their manifestos.

Nevertheless, the appearance of compassion across the manifestos of such radically different political parties raises many questions. Does it serve as an antidote to a widespread perception of the Tories as the ‘nasty party.’ Does it refocus attention away from the harsh effects of austerity, which has led to widespread socio-economic hardship? 

The concept of ‘compassionate conservatism’ is credited to US commentator Doug Wead, who introduced the term in 1979. It was adopted by former US President George W. Bush, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair—who re-fashioned it into the New Labour phrase ‘compassion with a hard edge’ in order to distance himself from the presumably softer edge of his (Old) Labour predecessors.

But while the concept of compassionate conservatism has been around for decades, the Tory-led government in the UK has introduced a number of policies that refer to compassion in more specific terms. 

Following a number of high-profile scandals involving staff mistreating people or ignoring their needs in care homes and in the National Health Service (NHS), compassion, alongside dignity and respect, was given a central place in policy as a standard for achieving high-quality health and social care. The Francis Inquiry into abuses by staff in the Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust argued for a ‘culture of compassion’ in the NHS. The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman reported in 2011 on the failure of the NHS to respond with care and compassion to the needs of older people.  

The resulting government policy goes as far as to stipulate that individuals have a right to be treated with compassion, requiring a shift from a narrow focus on quality of treatment to a greater focus on quality of care. The government has sought to implement this commitment across a number of fronts. For example, it has helped implement a three-year strategy for building a culture of compassionate care for nursing, midwifery and care staff. And it has worked with Health Education England to require that the NHS recruits, appraises and trains nursing and care staff according to compassionate values as well as professional skills.

Compassion featured in law and policy before the Conservative-led government came to power—for example in the release of life prisoners on compassionate grounds or for family reunion in exceptional circumstances under immigration rules. But compassion now appears to be featuring across a much wider range of policies and politics than before.

This raises a number of issues. The first is the age-old challenge of matching political rhetoric with meaningful enforcement. The new third guiding principle of the NHS—which seeks to codify compassion in health care—states that compassion, among other things, should be at the “core of how patients and staff are treated, not only because it is the right thing to do but because patient safety, experience and outcomes are all improved when staff are valued, empowered and supported.” It’s a puzzling formulation. Now that compassion is translated into legislation, it no longer features as a right of the patient to be provided with compassionate treatment from staff, which is what is stipulated in government policy. Instead, it appears as an aspirational value, but isn’t framed in terms of alleviating suffering, only of valuing, empowering and supporting staff. 

Secondly, how is compassionate action to be regulated? If we take compassion to mean the appreciation of the suffering of another person which prompts someone to take action to alleviate that suffering, its manifestation tends to reflect an ethical but voluntary response. This isn’t a technical function amenable to regulation, such as signalling before turning at a road junction.

Third, socio-economic context is vital to evaluating the potential efficacy of law and policy. Compassion operates within relations of social power, requiring an analysis of what facilitates, inhibits and prevents its expression. Raising expectations that frontline health care professionals act compassionately in a low-trust, overly-regulated, and increasingly-privatised NHS where the pursuit of profit squeezes standards down militates against compassionate behaviour. A survey of nurses in 2013, for example, found that 44 per cent of those who had raised concerns about standards of care said that fears of being victimised or suffering reprisals had made them think twice about speaking out in case they were seen as troublemakers.

The suffering to which compassion responds arises not only as a result of neglectful or abusive care. It can also follow from economic policies that place individuals and communities in extreme distress. In a letter to The Guardian weeks before the UK General Election, hundreds of counsellors, psychotherapists and mental health experts raised concerns about the “effects of austerity politics on the emotional state of the nation.” They referred to a “radical shift” in the issues that generated distress in their clients, including increasing inequality and poverty, families being forced to move against their wishes, and benefits claimants (including ill and disabled people) and those seeking work who are subjected to an “intimidatory kind of disciplinary regime.”

Moreover, it is essential to understand the broader political discourse in which these policies are deployed. The focus of neoliberalism on individual competition operationalizes a form of social Darwinism—the ‘survival of the fittest.’ Emphasis on the ‘hard working’ family as the just recipient of state recognition risks treating those who fail to meet this subjective standard as ‘slackers,’ and marginalises those who become dependent on benefits. This is reflected in the debates between David Cameron and Bishops from the Church of England about cutting welfare benefits. The language used is important. Drawing from ‘attachment theory,’ sociologist Philip Shaver’s research shows that language which echoes secure feelings reduces the tendency to create in-groups and out-groups.

A further challenge to compassion-based politics arises in adjudicating disputes. UK judges are trained in the adversarial, precedent-based system of English law, which privileges a particular form of legal reasoning based on clear rules and rational principles. These will struggle to admit considerations of compassion, so should this idea be dropped?

Government policies, and laws, come and go. There are always risks that compassion will be used merely as a rhetorical device. But there are sounds reasons, as Martha Nussbaum argues, for inserting compassion into political principles. The rationale for separating compassion into a private realm opposed to the public realm of politics—as suggested by Hannah Arendt for example—is no longer sustainable, just as care is now seen as a legitimate public concern.

Danny Finkelstein is right to question the assumption that compassion can lead only to one political view. And while compassion may not translate easily into policy or law it is certainly amenable to evaluation, and to holding governments accountable for their claims. The increasing reference to compassion in politics is a bellwether that much deeper changes are required in the way societies are governed.

About the authors

Dermot Feenan is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, University of London.


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