The Activist Trap.

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Chris Napier

Political involvement is a strange thing. Invariably, you get involved because you care, because you’re passionate about a cause or an ideology, about making the world better in some way. While of course, there is considerable disagreement between parties as to what that entails, at the end of the day you are willing to give up your time and energy to convince people to vote a certain way, to put pressure on government and politicians to adopt certain polices and do the less obvious work that supports all of that.

It’s quite a burden to take on.

I’ve been a relatively active member of the Scottish Green Party for just shy of 20 months. In that short time, I’ve seen ways in which the experience of being an activist can be quite harmful to healthy, ‘normal’ people. I’ve seen a lot more ways where it can be openly exclusive and toxic to folks with any form of constriction, be it a mental or physical impairment, lack of money, the need to care for children or local issues with transport or communications isolating them from the body of the party.

Disclaimer: While my personal experience comes from being active in the Scottish Green Party, I’d imagine the same issues are apparent in all parties, especially those of a more centralized and/or authoritarian mien.

The most hale activists put themselves in the general public’s firing line, with colleagues of mine abused and threatened when out delivering leaflets (thankfully very rarely, but it does happen.) Meanwhile the vitriol which comes with discussing politics online and the damage it causes to people’s mental health cannot be overstated.

It’s also a truism that parties tend to lionise those who are the most obviously active, those who deliver the most leaflets (and talk about it most), those who attend every meeting and those who sign up for all the committees.

This culture of presenteeism plays – unintentionally or not – on the fact that members want to be active, want to be involved and because they care about the cause. Activists often find it hard to say no if there is a call for people to get involved in a representative group or take over a branch role because someone has left or to leaflet more etc.

This can cause burnout in the most otherwise healthy and balanced individual and can prove punitively harmful and/or exclusive to members with physical or mental health impairments, the need to care for children or the desire to have a life which isn’t 100% about the party. You feel torn between your care for the cause and care for your own health and all too often, it’s the self which gives way as you might feel you are letting people down.

When you consider that party decisions tend to be made in meetings – be it national council, conference, branch committee or at branch meetings – it can be quite exclusive for people who can’t attend all the time for whatever reason. Members who live far from the branch hub in rural areas, members who don’t have good internet access, can’t attend a meeting in an inaccessible venue, simply can’t afford to travel to the meeting or are all out of spoons can be excluded from both the democratic decision making process and the feeling of involvement.

Little more than a name on a list and an annual membership fee.

Given that the underrepresentation of women, disabled people and other disadvantaged minorities in politics is kind of a big thing, I think we should look to change all that.

The Scottish Green Party pride themselves on being a ‘people-powered party’ and in order to live up to that little catchphrase we need to take care of and include our people better.

We need to care for our activists rather than just offering platitudes to ‘take care of yourself’ when folks seem a bit stretched. An activist welfare officer would be a good start.

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We need to make our meetings and events more accessible, in terms of disabled access, in terms of cost, in terms of location and in terms of licensing.

We need to recognise the contributions of folks who maybe couldn’t do as much or worked behind the scenes because of impairments, rather than just applauding whoever delivered the most leaflets.

We need to develop our representative groups – currently limited to youth, women, LGBTI+ and disabled groups – and expand them, perhaps with a parents group and a seniors group as well as giving them more influence and louder voices in the party.

We need to involve all members in the decision making process as far as is possible, both in communicating better with members, allowing them to vote on more issues and also appreciating that the internet isn’t a magic solution to this due to the spotty internet connection in rural areas.

There are members who are disabled, who are single parents, who work irregular shifts, who are unable to attend traditional party functions on a regular basis who are just as passionate about Green politics as their more involved peers and from their number could arise the next Patrick Harvie or Caroline Lucas if we support them properly.

A people powered party needs to develop, involve and care for it’s people, or else it’s a party powered in an unsustainable fashion… and we’re not really in favour of that, are we?

Of course, all other parties need to look into these issues as well, if we are to become a truly inclusive, democratic and supportive country.

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