By Matt Hawkins
Even at the best of times, elections can be highly reductive. Issues are simplified into slogans and soundbites, the media represent a crowded field of competitors as a two-horse race, and the public are forced to boil down their range of views, values and opinions into a single vote for a single candidate.
This election, however, may prove to be the most divisive, parochial and partisan to date. In part this is because artificial camps were erected during the 2016 referendum, separating the nation into Leavers and Remainers. It's also because the Conservatives and Labour stand further apart than at any election since 1983.
But these aren't the only reasons why politics in Britain has become so divisive, toxic and alienating. The weeds strangling our democracy have deep roots. The first-past-the-post electoral system leaves voters with only two meaningful choices – those who do not feel represented by either of the main parties are left disaffected. The whipping system leads to MPs being bullied, cajoled and threatened into towing the party line. The jeering and heckling in parliament degrades each and every parliamentarian and creates an atmosphere in which compromise is inconceivable, cooperation unthinkable, and good policy-making nigh-on impossible.
As Compassion in Politics' recent research with Opinium shows, it is also eroding our democracy from the bottom up. Our polling found that three in four people are put off from engaging in politics because of the way candidates in elections behave. Four in five say it increases the divisions in society. Over 85% think candidates' behaviour belies the fact that they do not respect their staff, their opponents or the public.
This is deeply corrosive to our politics. It means good people with compassionate values are less likely to enter a system that they see as anathema to their principles. As our work with the youth movement Reclaim shows, that will often include young passionate campaigners from working class or under-represented backgrounds. And it must also surely be the case for a large number of women or people of colour, scarred by the misogyny and xenophobia of our politics. In a more prosaic but still significant way it is likely to reduce voter turnout generally and limit public engagement with the decisions that affect them.
So what to do? Our polling with Opinium showed a strong public appetite for a major reform that is already gathering momentum in parliament: creating a new code of conduct for MPs.
We published our proposed new code alongside the campaign group More United. It emphasises the need to debate with respect, find common ground, and act with compassion. Over 100 MPs signed up to it before parliament was dissolved for the election campaign. Now the campaign is underway we are turning our attention to the individuals vying for public votes: we have asked them to sign a pledge saying they will #StopTheNastiness and use their moment in the public spotlight to promote compassion, respect and decency.
When parliament returns – with its green seats hopefully occupied by MPs who signed up to #StopTheNastiness – we will continue to work with them, as we were before November, on wider changes to the political system that would make it more cooperative, compassionate, and inclusive.
Doing so, we believe, represents the urgent need of our generation. Without those root and branch changes, the reforms we desperately need to our public services, the interventions required to stop climate breakdown, and the support demanded by those suffering on low or no income will never be realised. You can't bake a delicious cake from bad ingredients and you cannot expect good policies from a broken system. Our task is big but the rewards could be momentous.
Matt Hawkins is co-founder of Compassion in Politics.
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