On Mental Health and Young Labour’s Activist Culture

What follows is our first guest contribution. It comes from Charlotte Nichols. Charlotte is the North West Young Labour Vice Chair (Membership) and has recently been elected as the Youth Representative on the North West Regional Board, where she also sits as the Diversity Officer. Originally from Reading, since graduating from University of Liverpool in 2013, she works as a Researcher for a major trade union in Manchester and spends most of her time outside of those roles with her nose buried in a book, or practicing her Hebrew which she’s determined to become fluent in.

The issue of mental health has come to the fore in the party recently, particularly following Jeremy Corbyn’s appointment of Luciana Berger as Shadow Minister for Mental Health and the great work of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health (incidentally established by Young Labour members). Vital, and long overdue, conversations have been happening but sadly the process of change is a slow one.

A growing concern of mine, particularly in the social media age, is the weight of expectation (both implicit and explicit) on activists in activist groups and the impact of this on accessibility. Sadly, far from being an exception, the Labour Party (and particularly the youth sections) is often a very poignant example of this. Now, I’m not for a second advocating a party of navel-gazers or the perfect intellectual argument that is delivered to absolutely no-one outside of the room it was thrashed out in. It’s absolutely right that if we are to have a Labour victory in 2020, along with a strong message and bold policy platform, we need to be taking this message to every constituency, every community and every voter. My concern is how we treat our existing activists, and how we support new ones, to do just that.

While well-intentioned, hashtags like #labourdoorstep often contribute to the pressure many young activists feel to be the model party member. For many, campaigning feels like a competition, and one which they will never win. There will always be someone out that bit more than you, in that one more marginal seat campaign than you, who has posted that one more photo on the doorstep in the rain to show the depth of their dedication to the Labour cause.

The right to have an opinion in the party, or the worthiness of your opinion, is increasingly linked to how many doors you’ve knocked on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen debates on Facebook on policy descend into (in essence) “I’ve done more campaigning than you, therefore my opinion has greater merit”. Phrases like “well I’ve never heard someone say THAT on the doorstep”, “come back to me when you’ve done some actual campaigning”, and the passive aggressive “so I’ll see you on the doorstep yeah?”.

Doorknocking is not the only valuable campaigning activity, and there are a myriad of reasons why someone may be unable to come doorknocking regularly (or even at all!). Part of this is down to the days and times when campaign activity is usually held, but even where the days and times do move around, for people with caring responsibilities and/or disabilities in particular, there may never be a time that is suitable for them where doorknocking would be possible or practical.

We don’t show enough that we value the campaigning our activists do, or acknowledge the mental burn-out that many activists feel especially around election time. We expect so much from our activists, as a party, and rarely acknowledge that actually, for many people making it out of bed at all that day can be an achievement in itself and to demand more is deeply unfair. We need to be more explicit about the fact that your worth isn’t linked to an arbitrary threshold of leaflets delivered or doors knocked, that whatever contribution you can make, we are grateful for. We need to be kinder to ourselves, and to others, and be less punishing in our expectations. Without each of us working to cultivate an inclusive activist culture, we can never truly claim to be the party that makes mental health a priority.

Charlotte_Nichols_(RB).jpg
Charlotte Nichols

4 thoughts on “On Mental Health and Young Labour’s Activist Culture

  1. I’m a new member, and a medic, in Salford where Charlotte is based. My partner works in mental health nursing. Regular stuff is hard to commit to. But the first event I got to (a social) I said to the councillors “when you leaflet us, how long does that take you? Why not drop off all the leaflets at our house, we’ll do our estate”. This seemed like an idea nobody had had before. It’s not a commitment to a specific time, but an area. We have tons of new members. Asking them to doorknock/leaflet their own street in their own time might be hugely time-saving for councillors and existing activists, and it includes people in the Labour project.

    In my parents’ branch in Merseyside, they have visited every new member to have a chat and get them to sign up to small tasks – doing their street, or helping to run the facebook page, or writing a motion on a topic they know lots about. It sends a message – whatever you can do is enough. It also spreads the work, something it’s clear is needed.

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