What have I learned since shooting to fame? We need more compassion in public life | Jackie Weaver

Six months ago the video of a fractious meeting of the Handforth parish council propelled its attenders – myself included – into the spotlight. I’ve been on quite a journey ever since and while I have mostly enjoyed the ride, I can’t pretend it’s been devoid of bumps or bruises. I’ve tried to learn as much as I can from the rough and the smooth, the peaks and the troughs, and I felt like this was an opportune moment to share some of those lessons.

Jackie Weaver www.theguardian.com

First, the good stuff. I have met some amazing people – from the exotic world of showbusiness to the more familiar environment of local government. Making so many new acquaintances in a short period of time has made me a connoisseur of first and lasting impressions and I can say with confidence that it is people’s kindness, generosity and warmth, not their individual skills or achievements, that has stuck with me. These qualities are memorable because they are powerful. We are social creatures and it is through cooperation, collaboration and compassion that we achieve great things.

But while I have learned a great deal from the kindness and love of strangers, I have also become the unwitting target for trolls and bullies. I should stress that overwhelmingly the interactions I have with people online are positive, friendly and constructive but the abuse is, though infrequent, hard to ignore and impossible to forget. Much of it is sexist in nature – men who don’t like the idea that, as a certain parish councillor might have put it, I “have the authority” to speak on particular matters or share my views. I’ve been told on numerous occasions to shut up, pipe down or get lost. People sometimes comment on my appearance (as if it were relevant) or remind me that fame can be fleeting (as if I weren’t aware). One individual, who will have to remain anonymous, has taken to contacting me on a regular basis to tell me that they have seen through my facade to the calculating, toxic and manipulative individual that supposedly lies beneath.

In writing this, I acknowledge that the abuse I have received has neither been as relentless nor intimidating as that experienced by many women in the public eye, especially women of colour. But it has served as a salutary reminder that we must relentlessly defend the basic values of compassion, inclusion and cooperation: though the trolls may be few in number, their voices are loud and uncompromising. We must not allow this to become normal.

Which leads me to my recommendations for revitalising the soul of our body politic.

First, we have to tackle online abuse. The online safety bill that will soon be progressing through parliament couldbecome a landmark piece of legislation – a world first – in addressing this scourge. To be effective, it needs to significantly reduce the number and reach of anonymous social media accounts (the source of most misinformation and hate online) and enforce a new duty of care on social media sites towards their users. These platforms have, for too long, benefited from a laissez-faire system of governance that has allowed misinformation and abuse to spread with impunity. The government needs to catch up.

Second, we should substantially enhance the standards of behaviour expected of local and national politicians. Two quick and effective changes could help to make this happen. It should become the norm – enforced by legal action if necessary – that local councillors either resign or are removed from their post for a fixed period if they are found to have contravened their authority’s code of conduct. No such provision exists and, as I have documented before, this means that councillors found guilty of racism, sexism or homophobia can continue in their role. This unconscionable practice legitimises bad behaviour, low standards and poor governance. If we are to attract a wider demographic to stand in elections, we must redouble our efforts to make the environment they enter as safe as possible.

Further, I would like to see a law introduced to tackle lying in politics at every level. Compassion in Politics, for which I am an ambassador, is campaigning to make it illegal for politicians to wilfully and repeatedly lie to the public. Given the serious nature of their position and the responsibilities they have to the public, the least we can expect is that politicians will be honest, open and transparent.

Last, I think we should be looking to nurture an ethos of compassion, inclusion and kindness in every level of society, in every aspect of our economy, and in every layer of government. These are the values that have helped to save and protect lives through the Covid crisis and brightened the darkest of our days. We should bring compassion training into schools and workplaces and devolve more power, autonomy and resources to local communities. We cannot expect to resolve complicated problems such as pandemics, climate breakdown and inequality if we fight among ourselves. Take it from someone who has met many new people in the past few months – kindness and compassion are more likely to win you friends and influence than their opposites.

  • Jackie Weaver is chief officer of Cheshire Association of Local Councils and an ambassador of Compassion in Politics