Today, I shall discuss some aspects related to political values and compassion, which are the basis of political parties now when we live in a time when ideologies are almost gone, at least for the time being. Populism has become one visible version of ‘alternative politics’, which I consider folksy everyday thoughts rather than political ideas, and there is not much compassion and thoughts about others in the populism we see; it is rather selfish. But sometimes populist issues come to the surface because the established political parties have neglected certain groups, or they have spoken in a language not understood by people.

In our time, how do we develop values in politics? How much compassion do politicians really feel for the groups they represent, especially those who are at the bottom of the ladder and need help? Is there any other foundation of parties than values, sets of ideas and principles that we believe will improve our society? Can parties claim to know what to do unless they debate with the people in advance, especially today with better educated and more knowledgeable voters than before? True, democratic politics was always about representing people. Today, that is more difficult than before because we don’t have the ideologies to lean back on. Well, ideologies, too, were developed not only in the study chambers of academics, economic and political thinkers, but also in cooperation and confrontation with people.

Let me tell a story about Abid Raja, a Norwegian born to Pakistani immigrants who is a member of his country’s parliament for the Liberal Party, placing the individual in the centre. Recently, he created a bit of turbulence because he said something that wasn’t his party’s policies about immigrants; he thought that some immigrants were ‘lost cases’ and couldn’t be brought into mainstream society. The common stand would be that with good integration programmes all have a possibility to become good citizens, not withstanding, though, that some might develop antisocial behaviour and perhaps harbour extremist opinions. Abid Raja called a spade a spade, he would say, although he did not toe the party line or clear his opinions with the party beforehand. His behaviour illustrates some of the untidy situation of political parties today.

We live in a time when the weight of parties and ideologies are lighter than before. Everyone seems to be allowed to say what they think, indeed not only members of Liberal parties, who have it in their culture to put the individual in the centre and allow everyone his or her opinion. Also conservative parties would argue similarly, emphasising the individual’s freedom. But they wouldn’t go as far as Liberal parties.

On the left there is more party discipline. So if the chairman of the Norwegian Labour Party, Jonas Gahr Støre, who is the leader of the opposition in Parliament and candidate for prime minister in the upcoming elections in September, had strayed away from party lines, he would have been in greater difficulties with his fellow leaders and members than Abid Raja. But it is interesting that even Støre has developed a style of holding open discussions about issues without having drawn party conclusions at the outset. He is sometimes blamed for being unclear and cloudy because of that.

To be liberal and open-minded is exactly what we need in politics since we live in a time when traditional ’isms’ are said to be outdated. Also, in our time well-educated and knowledgeable citizens and voters want to think for themselves – in politics, religion and other fields. They don’t want politicians to draw conclusions on their behalf unless they have been part of the debate themselves.

I believe that the old ‘isms’ still have relevance and that they will be revived, notably socialism and capitalism. Well, the latter is doing well today, bullying its way, in spite of the financial crisis a decade ago and the ongoing uneven globalisation. We also sidetrack too much attention to security and defence issues. We pretend that democratic values are safeguarded that way whereas it often is defending the rich and strong; there isn’t much compassion in that, because, as I said above, compassion and the real purpose of politics is to help those at the bottom who need help, not those who live off the sweat and labour of others. Yes, there may be some ‘trickle-down’, but often that is an excuse for regulations. There can be self-regulations, of course, but usually, government regulations work best.

Are there no other ideologies and political poles? No, not really, except for the Liberal ‘ideology’. That, however, may sometimes get too close to populism and laissez-faire politics. But there are differences in how the ‘old’ ideologies are implemented, and what mixture they exist in. The Europeans are doing better, especially the social-democratic Nordic countries. But we need renewal of the old ideologies, also to accommodate immigrants better; but we don’t need new ideologies. Furthermore, we need to look at the development history of the last one or two hundred years, which was mainly led by the West. A few days ago, I came across a review of a new book by Gary Wilde with the main title ‘Freedom Time’, revisiting thoughts mainly by African leaders at the time of decolonisation in the 1950s and 1960s. I remember the intellectual, but also unfinished thoughts and ideas from that time; we studied it when I was young, but didn’t quite find them realistic. Yet, I believe there was more to what thinkers that time said than we thought. In today’s search for new ways, based on old and new values, we must learn to keep a more open mind.

We should renew the old ideologies on the left and right – and we should give more heed to thinkers who we in the past thought missed points. We all miss points, indeed if we get stuck in old ideologies, but more so if we think ideologies don’t exist. Frameworks are important for developing strategies. Indeed, political parties must involve citizens, what we say are ordinary people, more than we do in our technocratic world. We must always keep values and compassion central.

I believe that Abid Raja, Jonas Gahr Støre and Hadia Tajik have opened for essential debate styles. Let us be bold enough to take those debates to the public square, also when the leaders don’t have clear answers. In the long run, it is only through debates, based on values and compassion, that political parties can win elections and build lands – in Norway and in Pakistan. Leaders are not technocrats; they should be explorers and ideologists – and yes, idealists, who are dreaming of what has not yet been done.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.