Feeling their way to power

MPs are out of touch with our emotions. So says Susie Orbach and a group of therapists who aim to open up their hearts. By Paul Vallely
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It all sounds great stuff. MPs are to be put on the psychoanalytical couch in the House of Commons. Psychotherapists are to sit behind ministers in meetings, whispering dark advice. And the woman behind it all is Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue and the personal therapist to the Princess of Wales, whose Boxing Day consultation with the Princess prompted the memorable headline "eat, shrink and be merry".

There is, of course, less to it than memorable headlines might suggest. No wonder that Lady Olga Maitland was prompted this week to aver she had never heard "such tripe". For once she may be right. Most of what has been written about this week's link-up between psychotherapy and politics is just that.

It has all centred around Antidote, an organisation set up by psychotherapists with the aim of re-engaging the emotional and psychological dimensions of life with the political process.

It is part of an interesting trend. In the decade of Thatcherism, where all life was reduced to the merely economic, the pioneering think-tanks grew from the same mono-culture. In reaction to that, recent years have seen the growth of more synergistic thinking. First, there was the interdisciplinary, intraparty sociology of Demos. More recently, Jonathan Porritt's Real World coalition has been launched to highlight the connections between concerns as varied as job insecurity, traffic pollution and Third World poverty. And now Antidote is intent on emphasising the importance of emotions in the political process.

"What we are about is getting people to understand how their emotional lives construct their political attitudes," says James Park, the director of Antidote. "We're not interested in what people tell opinion pollsters so much as why. We need a political system that understands the level of complexity that people are bringing to these issues; by contrast, we live in a world where the political system is becoming cruder and cruder. That's why an antidote is needed."

What the nation needs, he insists, is "emotional literacy". And there are those outside the profession who are convinced. Various luminaries of the chattering classes - Carmen Callil, Patricia Hewitt, Roger Graef, George Monbiot and Helena Kennedy QC - are among a hundred sociologists, psychologists, market research consultants, doctors, teachers and assorted academics who are backing the new group.

"We want to look at some of the contradictions of modern politics," says Park. "Why do people say they want both lower taxes and more spending? ... How can they oppose testing on animals, yet support research into treatments for Aids, cancer or Alzheimer's? You've got to start unpacking that."

Such contradictions are not limited to the mere voters. "All the economic pressures, the shifts in gender relations and the worries about work are miraculously meant to be absorbed and processed in the family. The family is both bulwark against society and a treatment plant for society's sewage," according to Susie Orbach. "The tensions between parents and children; between the sexes; the demands on women to care for the elderly and the young; the restructuring of work; the very things that make individuals and groups of individuals unstable, instead of being engaged within the political debate, are given a sleight of hand or worse, even a dose of ideology to cover them up."

Everything from crime, racism and religious fundamentalism to the solipsistic attractions of computer games or cults reveals that in the face of the political, economic and social uncertainty nurtured by politicians, it is certainty, stability and security that people crave.

The Antidote therapists expect to be mocked by the likes of Lady Olga for all this, but the list of topics covered by their research - funded by five private trusts - will, one suspects, touch popular nerves. Their first report, due out in November, will be on contemporary attitudes to money. Later will come documents on the feeling of powerlessness in the face of global finance; on the search for new forms of community; on personal security at work; on religious values; on the changes in family structures; on world poverty, ecological sustainability and the intriguingly named gender panic.

"We'll do the research into people's attitudes and how that is shaping their behaviour and we'll take that research to politicians in the hope it will shape their policies in a way which is constructive and useful," Park says.

Pilot projects are concentrating on schools, with groups ranging from five-year-olds to 18-year-old economics students. "If they are discussing, say, international trade, we will begin to explore their particular views, and ask how they have been shaped - the places they've been to, the economic attitudes of their parents, their ethnic origin or whatever. We'll ask, where does your common sense come from? Why is yours different from his?"

From there, the work expands into the adult community. A series of researchers begin with in-depth interviews with individuals and then bring them together in groups to explore further. The impact of the technique in the business world is well-established, says Park. Techniques of emotional literacy can help to resolve problems within management teams that are impairing performance and profitability. "It inevitably plays through into the performance of the company when people are feeling miserable, destructive and angry," he says. So if the whole of society is now miserable, destructive and angry the toll must be terrifying.

The attraction to politicians is clear enough. "Emotional and psychological factors determine how people vote," says Tessa Jowell, who speaks for the Labour Party on women's issues. "In the end it is a question of whether people trust us." But it will also help with more detailed matters. "Why", she asks, "does research show that in mid-term people are prepared to support policies to curtail the use of the car but won't vote for that at the election?"

Exploring such questions is deemed fruitful by a wide range of supporters whose briefs, at first glance, seem well outside the realms of emotional literacy. But Charter 88 has signed up on the grounds that its agenda for constitutional change is subtly linked to an emotionally healthy polity. And at the New Economics Foundation, the Green think-tank, the director Ed Mayo is an enthusiast. It may seem a far cry from his usual concerns with the environment, world poverty, Third World debt. But Mayo is convinced that all those things "happening out there" will never change unless there is some kind of inner change which reintegrates ethics with the economy.

"If you ask people what makes them happy they give a long list of quality- of-life factors," Mayo says. "Money in the pocket is always a lot lower down than their family, their health, the quality of their relationships and their local environment. And yet the policy debate is conducted pretty much around issues of money. So there's a mismatch there between private yearning and public policy. Antidote is trying to push those issues into the political debate."

All of which is a far cry from the notion that the shrinks might offer their services to John Major to get the Euro-sceptics and Euro-philiacs back on talking terms. "Such people could benefit from exploring their positions together," says Parks. "If they would give us three days it may be possible to bring them to the position where they could have a dialogue ... if they were prepared to engage in good faith."

But digging trenches and leaping out from them only to bludgeon opponents with hardened cliches seems largely to be the point of politics in the modern era. Good faith? It may well be that Ms Orbach and Co have come too late, for the modern Conservative Party at any rate.