The upcoming British general election on May 6 raises the possibility for a new dawn in empathy-based politics. Or not. My review of the election manifestos of the major parties – Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green – reveals that the word ‘empathy’ is not mentioned a single time in any of them (out of a total 356 pages of text). This is rather different from the last US presidential election, when Barack Obama mentioned ‘empathy’ in almost every speech he made.
Of course, you can’t judge politicians or parties on the basis of how often they use a particular word. So let’s turn to a concrete policy area and see what the parties have to say. The one I’m choosing is immigration. This is because it is a litmus test of an empathetic approach to politics. National borders are dangerous because they frequently act as the boundaries of our moral universes; it is easy to care more about our fellow citizens than about people who live in far away places of which we know little (which is why we sometimes drop bombs on them or let them starve to death). But empathy is not a matter of what passport you hold; it must extend beyond borders to all human beings. A compassionate immigration policy demonstrates empathetic values in political practice.
Unsurprisingly, the two major parties reproduce the clichéd and scare-mongering image of immigrants stealing local jobs, bleeding the welfare system dry and causing crime. The Labour party doesn’t start well by combining ‘Crime and Immigration’ together in a single section in their manifesto. They then say they will adopt a new points-based system to control the menace of ‘rising immigration’. The Conservatives take a similar line, stating ‘immigration is too high and needs to be reduced’, and that ‘we do not need to attract people to do jobs that could be carried out by British citizens’.
Both the Liberal Democrats and Greens have a more empathetic position. They say they will end the detention of children in immigration detention centres, and will offer an amnesty for immigrants who have been living illegally in Britain for several years with a clean record, with the prospect of gaining the legal right of citizenship. The Greens also note that 5 million British people live abroad, so it would be hypocritical to make the country a complete fortress.
The neo-fascist British National Party has the most extreme policy position, calling for ‘a halt to the immigration invasion’. Immigrants, they believe, ‘totally swamp the existing people…destroying their communities.’ This is consistent their wider stance on international development issues: ‘Let them sort it out for themselves, it’s got nothing to do with us’. The BNP claim that the major reason people support them is due to their vociferous opposition to immigration. But a recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), Exploring the Roots of BNP Support, shows this to be a falsehood:
‘The British National Party (BNP) frequently suggests that it attracts support because it is the only party to take into account communities’ ‘real’ experiences of immigration. IPPR has explored whether or not this is the case by looking at the roots of BNP support across 149 local authorities. We conducted regression-based analysis to see whether or not high levels of immigration do raise communities’ support for the BNP, or if other variables – such as political disengagement – are important.
Our findings suggest that areas that have higher levels of recent immigration than others are not more likely to vote for the BNP. In fact, the more immigration an area has experienced, the lower its support for the far right. It seems that direct contact with migrants dissuades people from supporting the BNP. For example, of the 10 local authorities in which the BNP gained most support in the 2009 European elections, nine had lower than average immigration.’
This tells us something important about empathy. The report suggests, in effect, that having ‘direct contact’ with immigrants makes us more empathetic towards them. This contact might come through talking to them at the local shops, discovering that your six-year-old’s best friend is an asylum seeker, or simply seeing new immigrants trying to get on with their lives just as you are doing. The broad political implication may be that banging the anti-immigration drum is not as much of a vote winner as the political parties think.
Even an empathetic immigration policy is not, however, enough for any party to win my vote. Empathetic politics requires a radical decentralisation of power to close the gap between governors and governed, creating a level of citizen participation in decision-making that no mainstream party is ready to contemplate.
For some of my more general thinking on what is wrong with modern democracy, see my essay Mortgaged Democracy, originally published in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Democratic Thought.