Jun 19, 2020 | Politics, Sport

Jun 19, 2020 | Politics, Sport


Empathy is about understanding and is often fuelled by experience. Empathic politicians need to understand those they represent, yet we regularly see evidence of a lack of understanding, due to a lack of empathy. This leads to a fall in popularity or essential and embarrassing political U-turns, the like of which we have seen this week.

An estimated 1.3m children in England will be able to claim school meal vouchers during the summer holidays due to the pressure asserted by footballer Marcus Rashford. Former Education secretary, Justine Greening summed the situation up well: “I think there should be a post-mortem on how come a Premier League footballer is providing better advice to the Prime Minister than ministers and his wider government.”

The answer is empathy. We know that Marcus Rashford was able to provide such good advice because he has relied on such vouchers himself.

Marcus Rashford: Food voucher U-turn after footballer’s campaign >

Marcus Rashford

To begin with, we know that Rashford’s mother struggled to earn enough to feed her five children and had to rely on vouchers to bridge the gap. in addition, we are aware that there are more people in the UK living the experiences of the Rashfords than people living the experiences of the Johnsons. However, it is the decisions of the Johnsons of this country that influence the lives of the Rashfords.

To the best of our knowledge Boris Johnson has never had to rely on food voucher schemes. It seems unlikely that any of his family have, or any of his friends or indeed anyone he has ever known. Furthermore, most of his ministers have life experiences similar to his. It should come as no surprise that they didn’t provide better advice, for they too lack the empathic understanding that comes from shared experiences. This was highlighted when Matt Hancock referred to Marcus Rashford as Daniel. He blamed this on the similarity of the name Rashford to Radcliffe, the name of the actor who plays Harry Potter. Marcus Rashford is a Manchester United and England centre forward, but maybe our politicians are more familiar with quidditch than our national sport of football.


A UK politician’s unfamiliarity with mainstream culture is no rarity. We didn’t have to wait long for another example. Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, no less, revealed his level of understanding for the gesture of taking a knee by saying it came from Game of Thrones. Raab was apparently unaware of the actions of Colin Kaepernick in the NFL.

Looking back there are equally comical examples. In 2015, the PM, David Cameron showed his lack of understanding of football by confusing West Ham with Aston Villa.

Election 2015: Cameron ‘brain fade’ over West Ham / Aston Villa support

A year later, London Mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith couldn’t name which London football team play at Loftus Road. Neither could he name a Central Line tube station in the centre of the capital.

Zac Goldsmith Crashes And Burns In Quiz On London

Of course, we can’t all have the same experiences as others. Empathising is possible without shared experiences, although it’s more difficult and you have to be a motivated and skilled empathiser. You have to be able to use your imagination, drawing on everything you know about similar situations in order to understand another’s perspective. This is often referred to as mentalising or cognitive empathy. Ideally, political leaders employ cognitive, rather than emotional empathy, in order to protect themselves from the draining experience of the constant sharing of emotions. Developing cognitive empathy is certainly possible for those wishing to gain a deeper understanding of those they lead.

Empathy is becoming a more essential tool in contemporary politics. It seems voters are starting to expect it. When it’s clearly lacking our leaders will struggle to hold onto power. Marcus Rashford will walk onto the pitch a little taller this week, due to his empathy, which has enhanced respect and popularity; two things politicians crave. When it comes the empathy, in the match between Rashford and Johnson there is only one winner!


Peter Sear, Founder, The Empathic Minds Organisation

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