The UK Parliament recently celebrated 10 years of mindfulness at Westminster with a report, Mindfulness in Westminster: Reflections from UK Politicians, which examines the impact of mindfulness training on MPs, members of staff, and the wider parliamentary culture. One in 10 serving MPs and 800 employees – equivalent to a quarter of the current workforce of the Palace of Westminster – have taken part in mindfulness courses since 2013. Mindfulness is now a well-established presence in the halls of power. There is talk of a dedicated meditation room as part of a multibillion-pound overhaul of the parliamentary estate. Have you noticed what a difference mindfulness has made to the nation’s elite political institution?
Some have. The feedback from practising politicians, including members of the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG), ranges from the enthusiastic to the effusive. Clearly, they are experiencing the positive impact of mindfulness on their working lives. Personal benefits reported include feeling “more centred”, having fewer self-critical thoughts, being more productive, and experiencing improved levels of debate in the House of Commons – what Tim Loughton MP calls the ability to “disagree better”. The mindfulness programme as a whole is judged “a success story” by one his colleagues and echoed by the report.
Behind the Headlines
The beneficial effects on parliamentary culture are harder to detect. In contrast to the report’s upbeat tone, its authors acknowledge that public confidence in UK politicians has dropped to a record low. A recent survey suggests only 6% of citizens fully trust the current political system. A poll earlier this year found that a large majority of British voters believe the ruling Conservatives to be “institutionally corrupt.” It seems there is only so much lying, hypocrisy, self-aggrandisement, cronyism and pantomime farce that people will accept from institutions that are supposed to represent them.
Next there are the stories of bullying, misogyny, sexual misconduct, drunken aggression and racism that have leaked out of the House of Commons – all these in just the last year. Would you want to work in a place that had a “whisper list” of colleagues deemed unsafe to accept a drink from or be alone with? Or have a colleague who, displeased at the way you intended to vote, threw you against a wall then shouted at you so hard that you got their spit in your face? It’s not surprising that, in the public’s mind, the word rightfully associated with Westminster political culture isn’t “mindful”, it’s “toxic.” The citizenry aren’t stupid. Did somebody forget to inform the MAPPG?
The obnoxious atmosphere in Parliament is actually part of the rationale for its mindfulness programme. There is a growing awareness of the impact of its toxic culture on the mental health of MPs and a desire among some of them to find ways to build resilience. They also realise that power and responsibility come with the job and that their speech and actions impact society. They want to do the best job they can under the circumstances. Fair enough and quite right too.
Undoubtedly it is beneficial for an MP to become better acquainted with their emotional world and (normal) crazy mind, their human frailty and, fingers crossed, their innate capacity for compassion. The problem is, after a decade of mindfulness, the ethical complexion of the Commons is as bad as ever, if not worse. Why? Because the kind of mindfulness being practised in there doesn’t lead to constitutional change – in all meanings of the term.
A Private Affair
Westminster-style mindfulness is pitched and practised as a self-help tool for better functioning within the established system. The benefits that MPs experience vary – feeling more grounded, better debating skills, improved attentional focus, the ability to be relaxed and productive at the same time etc. – but the motivation to practise is always self-improvement and/or performance-enhancement. This is no different to the type of mindfulness taught in the military, the motivation there being to fight and kill more efficiently.
Mindfulness that is concerned with adaptation to abusive, unhealthy environments and the personal advantage that can result from such collusion is called McMindfulness. By absenting social critique and ignoring social context, this degraded form of mindfulness perpetuates the status quo by providing the practitioner with relief from stressful symptoms and more effective functioning within their environment. Little or no effort is made to proactively change anything beyond how the person feels.
The authors of the Westminster report would dispute the charge of McMindfulness. They would likely refer to the ‘evidence’ of their own report, such as how “many politicians identify something unique about the space provided by the mindfulness course that allows them to be themselves, connect with others at the level of their shared humanity and listen more empathetically.” They might additionally refer to their mention of ‘social mindfulness’: the crucial relationship between mindfulness and social context. It’s easy to miss as it’s confined to a single paragraph in a 47-page report.
Sadly, rather like that paragraph, in regards to how Westminster’s mindfulness affects the wider world this report is an empty gesture. It challenges no inconvenient truths. It lacks any systemic enquiry. It does not scrutinise the deficits in its mindfulness programme, ones that erode the potential for a genuine cultural shift in national politics.
Of course MPs feel more friendly and connected with each other in the warm glow of the meditation session – this is hardly revelatory – but what are they doing together? Sitting in silence. If and when they do talk during sessions, what are they talking about? Thoughts, feelings and sensations. Nothing political is discussed. There is no ‘shop talk’. Zero enquiry into the nation’s broken trust in them. Not a word on the rampant abuse and corruption in their workplace or the moral and material corruption of their colleagues. Nothing about the inequality, exploitation and injustice that abound in a society under their watch.
This is how McMindfulness works. It thrives on an active silence about the structural causes of stress and suffering. It is concerned with the smooth running of an established system. Anything that might question the institutional order or that seeks to understand how that order perpetuates suffering is unwelcome. Anyone that might disrupt business as usual is politely shown the door. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s an inadequacy.
The Westminster report skirts structural analysis and prefers to talk up its own “success story.” It suggests that mindfulness positively affects the actions of MPs beyond their meditation sessions. Presumably this is based on the belief that behavioural change comes about through the influence of mindfulness “on what people pay attention to.” That may be so but where is the evidence?
As political representatives making decisions that affect millions of people, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that “positive effects” could be evidenced, at least partially, in an MP’s voting behaviour? After all, Parliament routinely votes on issues such as welfare, human rights and environmental issues, which are intrinsically connected to the mindfulness values of kindness, friendliness, generosity and interconnectedness. Here is a rich seam of data to be mined. Where is it?
It doesn’t exist. If there was any evidence, even a mere paragraph’s worth, we’d be hearing all about it. My own research came up with nothing. However, I can offer some tentative clues about the spectrum of behavioural change, drawn from examining two MPs in my local area, both of whom contributed to the Westminster report.
Tim Loughton is co-chair of the MAPPG. A vocal advocate for the benefits of meditation, he is most famous in the mindfulness world for equating its practice with daily, hour-long baths to “think about things” and then charging his large water bills to taxpayers. Self-interest trumps prosocial behaviour with remarkable regularity in Tim’s world. His lack of environmental conservation is reflected in the fact that he regularly votes against measures to prevent climate change.
Tim has almost always voted for reductions in welfare spending. He has generally voted against raising welfare benefits at least in line with prices, and is similarly against paying higher benefits over longer periods for people who are ill and disabled. He supports his “institutionally corrupt” party’s cruel and inhumane migration policy, regardless of whether it’s at odds with their obligations under international law. He generally votes against laws to promote equality, human rights and gay rights.
Suffice to say, a spirit of “shared humanity” (to borrow the Westminster report’s term) is not high on Tim’s agenda. He is ignobly silent on the devastating impact of his party’s governance on the least fortunate and most vulnerable members of our society. His voting pattern has not discernibly changed throughout his career. At least he’s consistent. There is nothing in this parliamentarian’s professional record to indicate that mindfulness practice and ethical values are in any way related.
Tim has never responded to my requests for an interview, but I did once ask another local MP, Caroline Lucas of the Green Party, why she thought his voting record was so appalling. She said she didn’t know. Caroline’s voting record is basically the antithesis of Tim’s. Her politics are steeped in the values of peace, justice, compassion and interdependence. But these were core values before she started practising mindfulness, so again this is not evidence of the impact of the Westminster programme.
Caroline is one of the more thoughtful contributors to the report. She believes there are benefits through meditation to be had for Parliamentarians, such as less psychological reactivity and possibly “greater respect and thoughtfulness.” She is equally clear that the potential is limited, stating that if “mindfulness is simply about civility, it’s not for me.”
When I spoke to her, she was not convinced that mindfulness was “making better MPs” and queried how seriously some were able to “turn towards the difficult”, particularly in regards to the pressing environmental issues that Parliament has responsibility to lead on. She nailed the fundamental limitation of the kind of mindfulness programme operating at Westminster when she asked, “Why monitor our own extinction rather than take action?”
In June, Caroline announced she would not stand at the next general election because her MP work ironically leaves her struggling to spend time focussing on urgent environmental issues. The institution she has worked in for 13 years is not meeting its responsibilities to address the climate crisis. In announcing her retirement she offered her fellow Parliamentary meditators a proper lesson in “disagreeing better.” Did they even notice? Let’s hope one or two lifted their eyelids long enough to register that this is what ethical action looks like. After all, isn’t ethical action what mindfulness is supposed to be about?
Click here for Part 2.