Getting Your Priorities Right
This was going to be titled “Why You Shouldn’t Campaign for Mike Thornton”, but I was too busy campaigning for Mike Thornton to do it earlier. Now you shouldn’t campaign for Mike Thornton because the polls have closed for the Eastleigh by-election so there’s not much point. I’ve written this before the count finishes, so my prediction is Lib Dems, UKIP, Tory, Labour in that order and none losing deposits. By the time you read this you’ll know if I was right and can laugh at me.
Politics will take as much of your time and energy as you can give it. There’s no real point in politics at which you have achieved all your aims – or if there is, it’s usually beyond the capacity of any one person. While some people can dedicate their entire lives to politics, others have different commitments and interests – whether it’s education, a day job, a partner, caring responsibilities, a hobby or just taking some time to chillax. It’s important to realise that it’s OK to have a life outside politics. Indeed, given the complaints about identikit politicians with no experience outside politics, it’s positively encouraged. Doing something unrelated to politics gives you some distance and perspective. Similarly, identifying full time as a politician means you put a lot of pressure on yourself to be a politician. This is why I took the Lib Dem reference out of my Twitter username and started using it for less political ends.
It’s also important to set reasonable expectations for yourself, and for others about you. We can achieve nothing if we take on more than we can handle. As a party we rely on too few shoulders bearing the load (which is why I’m also a fervent believer in recruitment and engagement – find people who want to do some of the stuff you feel obliged to!) One of the hardest skills is learning what you have time to achieve. Many people take on multiple responsibilities and then fail to do any of them well; since I stepped down from one Executive at the start of the year, I’ve done a lot more on aggregate for the Lib Dems as a whole. And my replacement should do more for the body I left than I could. One or two people have made negative comments about my stepping down, which is a shame, but I don’t feel guilty for it.
And finally, it’s important that we look after each other. One of my favourite tips from the world of bisexual activism is one piece of activism that you can do in five minutes – make a cup of tea for another activist. Organising Liberal Drinks social events is one of my favorite things. A night in the pub relaxing with friends, and yet somehow it’s a Lib Dem thing too which makes it look like your local party is active and encourages newcomers out of the woodwork! During one particularly tense polling day row in the committee room, I ordered the candidate and agent to separate rooms away from the activists, got the delivery rounds out, made tea and toast for the candidate and agent and told them not to come out until they’d finished. I spent quite a bit of time that day refuelling hardworking pavement-pounders to help them get back out faster. When I see a friend struggling, my first questions are whether they’ve had enough food, drink and sleep – and whether whatever they’re struggling with is honestly as urgent as they’ve convinced themselves it is.
These techniques can be applied inwardly. We’re all terrible at taking our own advice, but sometimes I consciously ask myself what I’d advise a friend to do in the situation I find myself in. I have studied mindfulness and meditation at the Manchester Buddhist Centre, and have a reasonable handle on how my brain works and its failure modes. I have friends who look after me and show me the same love and concern as I show them. I’ve suffered medically from stress in the past due to having more day-job work thrust upon me than I could cope with, and it’s not something I’d wish on anybody. Years later, I still don’t have as much energy for politics as I used to, and I’m grudgingly coming to accept that that’s OK too. The odd evening at home cooking dinner mindfully, or chilling out with a movie with the activism-filled laptop folded shut, is OK.
It’s OK to cut down on your activism. It’s OK to take a break entirely until you’re ready to come back. It’s OK to put your energy into making things easier for yourself and others. It’s OK to have not made it to Eastleigh because you couldn’t spare the time, money or energy. It’s OK to strike a balance between doing enough to avoid feeling guilty, and not doing so much you burn out. It’s OK to try and avoid feeling guilty in the first place – we shouldn’t feel bad about doing for the party only what we can spare time and energy for.
During Eastleigh, the party has relied heavily on e-mails, phone banking and SMS to encourage activists to come and help. This works out well for the party – I probably donated more money and time to the campaign as a result than I otherwise might. And it was great to be there with friends old and new, enjoying the buzz of the headquarters, running a canvassing board one minute and taking direction from a colleague the next. The quiet canvas round on my own and the group of 7 running up and down terraces. Driving around farmhouses with a bemused city dweller. Phonebanking upstairs with campaign staff. People’s favourite crisps. Spending a naughty ten minutes on one doorstep explaining why the Lib Dems and Labour couldn’t have formed a workable coalition. Night driving through the New Forest, full beams picking out sleepy donkeys. These are all good memories I will cherish.
But I went down when it worked for me, a fortnight before polling day; I could in theory have taken more days off work and gone down today, but it would have caused more stress and hassle than I could reasonably spare, so I did a spot of phone banking after work instead. And that’s OK too. I know people who didn’t contribute any time or money to Eastleigh, and that’s OK too – they had their reasons and priorities, and I respect that and don’t demand that they justify themselves to me. They are good people and good Lib Dems and they will do what they can when they can.
To summarise then – let’s be a party of enthusiastic, mutually-caring part-timers that people might want to join, rather than being guilt-tripped into self-flagellating martyrs competing to deliver more Focus. It’ll be better for us, but it might just be better for the party too. Be excellent to one another.
PS: If you liked this post, you really should be reading Louise’s blog. She’s great at this kind of stuff.