Me and my vote: Susie Orbach

'We don't need more conflict and argument among politicians, but a bit of courage to solve the nation's problems.'

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘The whole political process needs some emotional literacy. The adversarial nature of politics today evades getting to grips with the difficult choices we face as a nation.’

Susie Orbach, one of Britain’s leading psychotherapists, is not happy with the state of British politics. She thinks there is far too much ‘bullying, stiffness and conflict’ at Westminster, when what is needed is a bit more ‘emotion, commitment and caring’. ‘I wish we were more that way, more emotional’, says Orbach. ‘I wish we had the courage to deal with the problems – social and economic – that we have as a society.’

But Orbach sees some hope on the horizon, in the shape of New Labour leader Tony Blair. ‘I think Blair is open, and his thinking is certainly open. A lot of the stiffness of the old politics has been tackled by the new Blair administration.’ But according to Orbach, even Blair is prevented from becoming a truly emotional politician by the old-style party machinery that surrounds him:

‘You get the sense that the gateways to Blair are blocked so that sometimes it looks like his thinking is actually closed. There was still a defensiveness in the New Labour administration, a need to push the point rather than respond to the questions being posed – that’s when there were real questions as opposed to bullying ones – and there was a lack of flexibility.’

But isn’t it part of a politician’s job to ‘push the point’ – to stick to his guns rather than give in to a bit of oppositional questioning, whether that questioning is ‘real’ or ‘bullying’? Orbach thinks such ‘old-stlye, conflictual’ politics just turns people off. ‘I think many people feel, if not isolated, then removed, turned off or alienated from Westminster and Whitehall – which they identify as conveying the message that they know best and that the political process is not something to engage in except at election time.’

Orbach has been campaigning for a more open style of politics since the mid-1990s. And as author of the early 1980s book Fat is a Feminist Issue, one-time therapist to Princess Diana, and a leading member of Antidote, the think-tank that was set up in 1998 to ‘raise the issue of emotional literacy in the public sphere’, she is well placed to call for a move towards, her own description, ‘politics that cares’. But shouldn’t politics be about rational judgement and making decisions based on facts, rather than about politicians bringing their emotions and feelings into parliament with them?

‘That is an outdated view’, says Orbach. ‘We don’t need more conflict and argument among politicians, but a bit of courage to solve the nation’s problems.’ And who are the people for the job? Women, says Orbach.

‘I think women can bring something different to politics: a capacity for complexity, for holding ideas that may be contradictory or not quite fit together – and they feel less need to banish issues that are problematic. I think what women can bring to politics can make a difference to how politics is practised.’

Surely it’s a bit stereotypical to hail women more for their moderate, can-do approach than for their political beliefs and convictions? Orbach thinks the bigger problem is that women haven’t been able to go far enough in rejuvenating British politics: ‘Have they done what they should do in parliament? Not easily, but that is because, despite their numbers, they are still guests rather than principals in the political process, and so they haven’t had a chance to reshape it to reflect their strengths.’

So how will Susie Orbach vote in an election campaign where only ‘Charles Kennedy and Tony Blair appear to be open’, while ‘their parties are still closed’, and where everybody else is stuck in a ‘conflictual mindset’?

‘I’d find it hard not to vote for Labour’, says Orbach.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

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Topics Politics


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