I recently had the opportunity to talk to my friend and colleague, Rachel Eden, about kindness in public service. Rachel has been an elected member of Reading Borough Council since 2010, has stood as a parliamentary candidate in 2 General Elections and is the current Mayor of Reading. She also runs her own finance and accountancy business and holds various voluntary positions in the community. It was interesting to hear her thoughts and experiences of kindness in politics.
Sarah: What do you think about the idea of kindness in politics?
Rachel: There is a lot more kindness in politics than people might think. If you choose to do something you don’t have to do, just because you know it is a positive thing for another human being, that’s kindness. For example, choosing to put yourself up for election in the first place or congratulating a rival on their campaign. Sometimes kindness comes in the smallest of acts, things that the person themselves may not remember.
Sarah: Have you experienced kindness personally in your political career?
Rachel: Yes, I have, many times. For example, when I announced my candidacy for my first role in local politics, I was using a Twitter handle that was my name but all lower case. Someone I didn’t know sent me a direct message to say ‘this is how you can change your handle to put in capitals for your name, to make it more accessible and easier to read’. I was blown away by their kindness – both the suggestion itself and the manner in which they did it (privately and with a helpful tone, not an accusation). Things like that have stayed with me.
Another example was when I stood as a Labour and Co-operative Party candidate in the 2017 General Election. It was a long-shot, a solid Conservative seat. After the result was announced, Ed Vaizey (the candidate who held his seat) made a point of coming over to me and saying “that was a great campaign, well done”. It was a personal recognition of the hard work and sacrifices that go into running a campaign.
Sarah: Why do you think people get involved in politics?
Rachel: Most people I have come across who are involved in local politics are doing it for public service reasons. They would have a more comfortable life if they didn’t choose to get involved. That idea of commitment because you want to make a difference, even when it creates personal challenges, seems to me to be an act of kindness and community.
Sarah: Can you tell us about times you have used kindness in your political career?
Rachel: I try to show kindness in the way that I carry out my activities as a politician, not just in the things I do. Sometimes I do have to make difficult or unpopular decisions, but my aim is always to do that with empathy. As Mayor I attend a lot of events and even when I am only able to stay for a short while or it is one of many things I’m involved in over a weekend, I always try to act with warmth and show people that I value the opportunity of meeting them and hearing their story.
Sarah: What do you think about disagreeing with others’ views kindly? Is that possible?
Rachel: I do think it’s possible. Avoiding personal attacks is one way. And not only is it not nice to attack someone personally, it’s not politically effective either. The public generally don’t want their politicians to behave in that way. People need to know where you stand on an issue, but you can state your points firmly without crossing a line. You can definitely disagree without being disagreeable!
Sarah: Being Mayor of Reading gives you a profile that others don’t have. How has that helped to promote kindness in our town?
Rachel: I believe that as a politician you don’t just have a duty to be kind yourself, you can also facilitate kindness in others. When the Ukrainian invasion began, I noticed that there was a lot of ‘pent up kindness’ in the town; people wanted to do something to help, but they didn’t know what would be most useful. We have a Ukrainian Community Centre in Reading and people had been taking donations of physical items there, but they also needed financial donations. As Mayor, I was able to be a trusted intermediary because I could use the appropriate financial infrastructure to collect donations securely and pass them on to the community. I’m really proud of the generosity of our town.
Sarah: Finally, how do you feel about being kind to yourself?
Rachel: It can be easy not to be kind to yourself! But I’ve found that training myself to think about kindness differently has been helpful. I see it as a strength, not a weakness. I try to look at things from different perspectives. So when I lose an election I take time to feel sad, but I don’t feel bad about it – I recognise that I gave the people who voted for me a chance to express their view. And when I achieve something, I take time to feel proud of the part I played.
Sarah: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today.
Rachel: You’re welcome.