By Morvern Rennie
In which Alison drops a reality bomb on my dream of living the good life at Applecross.
After reading Chris’ piece ‘The Activist Trap’ where he discusses the culture of ‘presentee-ism’ in the party I decided to interview Alison MacLeod (Local Development Officer at Applecross Community Company). Aside from being an absolute legend, Alison proves that your contribution to the green movement doesn’t have to correlate with the amount of meetings you can show up to or leaflets you deliver.
MR: When did you join SGP? I became aware of you from following the Scottish Rural Parliament tweets – then I think you did a stint on HI voices (a rotating community Twitter account for people from the H&I) but didn’t realise you were green.
AM: I joined the party in July 2014 and went to the conference in Edinburgh that year. I’ve voted Green every time I’ve had the chance to every election since I was 18 though.
First time it was the Ecology party though, before they were Greens. Because I’m ancient. I was a student just started at Edinburgh Uni
MR: Aha! That was my first conference too – also my first insight into what a political party was about. Did you ever do uni politics?
AM: No, though I had political views and it influenced my choice of course. I started studying law but I disliked the conservative approach. Especially as many of the other students were ex Edinburgh public school. You just learned what the laws were, never asked about whether they were good or fair etc.
So I changed to history where I was allowed/encouraged to ask questions.
Favourite course was ‘Radical Ideas, Popular Politics and Social Protest’ The Levellers and Diggers and all that.
But I was quite quiet and did not say a lot in tutorials about my views and probably for the same reason did not get involved in student politics. I lacked confidence
MR: I only know you digitally but you come across as really confident!
AM: I am much more so now I suppose. I’m more confident away from Applecross than I am in it though. I don’t find it difficult to deliver a presentation at an event somewhere else. But living in a wee community like this, people can be very hard on each other.
MR: Aww don’t say that – in my imagination Applecross is living the dream! How did you end up there?
AM: It’s more like a nightmare a lot of the time!
My husband’s family belong here- I got together with him last year at uni. He’d always wanted to come back here and he inherited his grandfathers croft and house.
I thought we would try it for a while and it would be fun but after a while we’d go and do something more conventional
But we are still here after nearly 33 years.
MR: You’ve done some pretty amazing things as a community – what’s been your role in that?
AM: I started off as chair of the community company- I was one of a small group that set that up. That was in 2008 and the first reason for doing that was to save the filling station from closure, but there were always much bigger ideas behind it. I’ve been local development officer for nearly 5 years now- so am paid for my work. The first three years everything was done by volunteers.
So I am doing most of the work on the projects- planning them, getting funding in, managing them, sorting them out when they go wrong etc.
Hiding from the criticism!
And I answer to a board of volunteers who often don’t have a lot of time to spare.
MR: How do you overcome that volunteer/paid work transition? How do you find it being answerable to a board of volunteers when you’ve been working consistently at it for all that time?
AM: It’s a difficult transition. As a volunteer I was poor but could officially be one of the people in charge – making the decisions about things. As LDO I earn a reasonable salary for the first time in my life but the decisions are with the board, who often rely on me.
MR: I think that’s how a lot of our regional campaign support officers felt too.
AM: I’m sure. I think it will be a common problem in ambitious idealistic organisations that are growing a bit faster than is comfortable
You just have to cope best way you can, and if you get a chance sit back and have a good think about how to improve it.
MR: Yes we’re just about to do this as a party with the structural review – what would you like to see come out of the process?
AM: It’s not easy for me to say as I haven’t really managed to be involved very much, except on social media. I’m too far away from my “local” branch and too busy with work to attend meetings.
But I suppose a clearer view on what the party is aiming to do and how, and how to be involved helpfully. How to manage conflict, how to manage PR etc- that people agree on and understand and aren’t too complicated.
We need to be able to have robust discussions within the party without trouble makers from outside (or inside) making these out to be any more than that.
The Aberdeen situation seemed very uncomfortable from the little I understood of it
MR: Yes I feel – good that the review is happening – but a lot of problems could have been avoided if we had started it straight after the surge. I would love you to be able to be more involved in the branch! Or a councillor – you would make an awesome councillor!
AM: With the benefit of hindsight you can see where things went wrong, and what could have been done, but I’d guess not easy at the time. I would like to be more involved but need to find a way of cutting down my work commitments before I can. I’ve thought about standing for the council but am not sure about it. I’m not sure how awesome I would be – I tend to be a bit too outspoken sometimes.
I think there will be much more established Green members in the council ward who would think of standing.
MR: My experience of councillors tends to be they are either young politicos who go on to be MSPs, retired business types or single cause community champions. I think that’s part of why people can’t be bothered engaging with local politics
AM: Yes that seems to be true in a lot of places. This ward is maybe a bit different – the current councillors don’t really match any of those descriptions. Three independents and one SNP, all older people.
MR: So much of the stuff that does people’s nuts in on a day to day basis is the council’s responsibility but it feels like people would rather set up a campaign than vote or stand for election!
AM: I think a lot of the apathy about being a councillor is because of the huge areas councils cover. The area Highland Council covers is the size of a small country. Inverness dominates and seems to be booming, while the rest of the Highlands struggles. This city deal which is supposed to benefit the whole region is really just benefitting Inverness- but they say we are going to benefit because we go to Inverness.
I hope you’ve been as inspired by Alison as I have – I could pick her brains all day! I would also encourage you to visit Applecross and see the incredible work she, her family & the community have done for yourself.
Seriously, google it.
If you want to be interviewed as part of the ‘Green Chat’ series drop me an email: email@example.com