Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Real Deficit

Can you imagine David Cameron in your local Argos? Flicking through the laminated pages, until he’s found the best deal on a new kettle. Getting agitated by the non-responsive stock checker as he tries to accurately punch the code in. Then negotiating the tiny pencils with his saveloy fingers. He might become quite distressed by the whole process, but I could relate to him more.

Which is why politicians do such stunts; it’s a good photo opportunity to get amongst ‘the public’, to show that you’re connected and just one of the blokes. Look at me: down the pub; smoking a fag; going for a jog; eating a bacon sandwich; standing in my kitchen, riding a bike or [readers, feel free to add your own cliché gestures here].

We know it’s all PR, but do we know how much professional politicians are actually bothered about the rest of us? And how it feels at the sharp end of the austerity cuts these last four years? I would venture to say not a huge amount. The rest of us humans just seem to get in the way of the politicians’ love affair with the free market and keeping the economy ticking over. Bunch of inconveniences we are! If only we’d stop moaning on and just suffer in silence.

However, I would also venture to say this isn’t because they’re evil or malicious, or whatever label is easy to affix. It is because they lack, or have lost, the capacity to empathise. Empathy is the art of stepping into someone else’s shoes, assimilating their feelings, then reassessing your own point-of-view. It’s easy to make brutal decisions about other people’s lives if you’re so detached as to see them as ‘other’. When running a country comes down to reducing people to numbers it’s not the budget deficit, but the empathy deficit, we should worry about.

The empathy deficit is more than just hyperbole. The great divide that runs through British society is the inequality between rich and poor. In 2011 research by Scientific America showed that the richer you are the less empathetic you are likely to be. Perhaps not a problem? Surely the wealthiest form only a minor percentage of our society... Well it just so happens that such a wealthy elite makes up our government. In 2013 the combined wealth of the cabinet was £70 million, with powerful figures such as Cameron, Osborne, Hunt and Hammond owning £4m, £4.6m, £4.8m and £8.2m respectively. Unfortunately the shadow cabinet - with seven millionaires - aren’t much better. To quote Krznaric in his book Empathy – A Handbook for Revolution: “There is nothing like wealth to make you insensitive to human deprivation and suffering!”

Of course I have a biased perspective, but allow me to point out that I don’t know anyone who has joined the Green Party in search of power and riches! We’re regular people (mostly) getting on with our lives and I believe we have a much stronger capability to empathise with those around us, because we are those members of ‘the public’ which professional politicians play out their pantomime with. Yes, we are in a political party and this is because, if we feel something is rotten, we feel strongly convicted to speak out against it. This isn’t a special privilege; it’s what I want everyone to feel they are also able to do. Most people grossly underestimate their power to do good and, if there’s one thing I want to achieve from this election campaign, it’s for us all to wake up and reclaim our lives!

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