Compassionate campaigning – learning how to connect in a time of distance

Make Votes Matter supporters demonstrate across East Sussex. Photo montage: MVM Lewes

When Make Votes Matter Lewes began forming in early 2020, we knew we’d need to work hard to build connections in a time of painful political division – but not that we’d have to do so while social distancing. Yet the Covid-19 restrictions forced us to find new ways to connect – across parties, our constituency’s communities, and even regions.

Make Votes Matter is a national, cross-party movement calling for proportional representation (PR) for general elections. It is about giving equal voice to all, ensuring that the UK electorate’s diversity of political views is reflected proportionally – and therefore accurately – by our 650 Members of Parliament.

With our current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, most votes are effectively wasted. In the 2019 general election, 71 per cent of votes cast made no difference to the overall distribution of seats in Westminster; 56 per cent of votes were cast against the party that claimed an outright ‘majority’; and millions of people voted tactically rather than for the party they most believed in. It’s as if FPTP was designed to leave people feeling helpless and disempowered, turning elections into games with far-from-level playing fields.

Electoral reform is sometimes portrayed as rather academic, especially by those who stand to benefit most from the inequity of FPTP. But it’s an issue that affects every single voter, because a true and functioning democracy requires a fair and transparent voting system. Interestingly, only two countries in the whole of Europe still use the FPTP system: the UK and Belarus.

More on this story:

No real democracy until we Make Votes Matter

Psychologically, such chronic disenfranchisement foments feelings of entrapment, helplessness and burnout – states that induce production of the ‘endurance hormone’ cortisol and which are exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Cortisol hardens us to bear the unbearable, but our stressed bodies and minds do not want us to stay in that immune-compromising condition for long – far preferable instead to release a shot of adrenaline via a burst of rage or a dash to escape. If such temporary relief isn’t available, we might turn to social media for some in-group-out-group posturing, delivering a quick serotonin fix thanks to the brief comfort of feeling centre of our own herd (see Loretta Graziano Breuning’s “The Science of Positivity”). However, these natural responses can also perpetuate feelings of alienation, threat and division, prompting us to cling to existing social identities (even toxic ones), too afraid of the unfamiliar to reach out.

Luckily, there’s another element in our biochemical and psychological response repertoire – our innate propensity for compassion. This core human trait is invaluable when facing collective suffering – helping us to transcend divisions, build trust, foster inclusion and reciprocity. While fear-induced adrenaline causes us to run, screaming, from disaster or distress, it is compassion – powered by hormones like endorphins and oxytocin – that sends us back into the fray, seeking to heal the pain. Psychology professor Paul Gilbert named this soothing system of affiliation the Compassionate Mind, and developed a form of psychological therapy called Compassion Focused Therapy. This year he created a free 15-part lecture video series exploring how compassion can help us all during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It turns out that these comforting and connecting capacities – along with the technologies and mobilisation strategies necessitated by COVID-19 – also have much to offer campaigning. At Make Votes Matter (MVM) Lewes’ inception, we were determined to continue Lewes’ celebrated history of political radicalism and had ambitious campaign ideas, all of which seemed suddenly doomed when lockdown forced us to cancel our inaugural public meeting in March. Instead, we met online for an informal, virtual ‘Chat and a Cuppa’ evening. Shocked and bewildered, we wondered if we should even be talking about campaigning for electoral reform during a pandemic, but we talked because it felt important to talk, and continued talking as like-minded people joined in from across East Sussex. We focused on building a cross-party, cross-constituency ethos. Looking back, it was an affiliative response to a time of crisis. Before long, the need for political reform became even more apparent and our appetite for campaigning sparked afresh.

We realised that grassroots campaigning would have to go virtual and planned a ‘virtual rally’ for the July 4 weekend. We asked people to make a poster or placard, then take and post a selfie with it – keeping to the advisory two metre social distancing for small-group actions – and used Twitter to show our perfectly imperfect placards in the making. We used #MakeVotesMatter and #ChangeTheVotingSystem alongside hashtags of the names of various villages and towns dotted across the Lewes and Wealden constituencies. Before long, our tweets had been viewed more than 20,000 times!

Collage depicting MVM Lewes’ virtual rally held on 4-5 July. Photo credit: MVM Lewes

Our first action weekend proved that virtual formats for grassroots campaigning are not just effective, but inclusive and empowering. As well as reaching scattered communities, it enabled those shielding or self-isolating to take part from their homes. It also chimed well with the aims of proportional representation to give equal voice to all. And, thanks to the crucial compassion factor, we all felt a truly connected sense of camaraderie.

When the national Make Votes Matter campaign shared our story and used it as inspiration for #DemandDemocracy Day on August 22, we reached out to campaigners even further afield. We twinned some of our demonstrations with MVM groups in the north of England, assembling at paired landmarks, then combining images and videos to create the effect of marching alongside each other. One of the most moving was our dual action with MVM Manchester: while we took placards to the statue of Lewesian revolutionary Thomas Paine, MVM Manchester activists took theirs to the statue of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, and the memorial to those killed in the Peterloo Massacre. It was a reminder that the struggle for democracy has been long and hard-fought, with many lives lost.

Remembering revolutionaries like Paine and Pankhurst was inspiring and timely – it being exactly one hundred years since the Spanish flu pandemic threatened the women’s suffrage movement. Those brave souls did not risk everything fighting for equality and emancipation for us to give up now and accept that such a toxic, undemocratic electoral system as FPTP cannot be changed.

A century later, in the midst of another pandemic, it’s clear that we citizens still have the power – using our collective compassion and handheld devices – to make the world anew.

Dr Hazel Fell-Rayner is a clinical psychologist, community activist and Acting Chair of Make Votes Matter Lewes.

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