On politics: idealism and inaction

A little prose and musings…will probably add to this in time

As a child I was very idealistic. It sound pretentious but I generally had a sense of a “calling”. I imagine myself holding hands with activists in the desert (where wars happen, obviously) to stand in the way of battling troops, or feeding water to a poor malnourished child in the slums. Princess Diana was my role model and I felt sure I was going to go out and do Good Things. Growing up Jewish I think you assimilate your own sense of atrocity. We were taught stories of slavery and learnt the turbulent history of the state of Israel. Everyone knew someone who had been in the death camps.  We learnt and practiced “Tzedakah” (charity) and were taught that the greatest thing we could do for another was to help them to reach independence and self-sufficiency.

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Intention achieved: frightening children

My first awareness of current politics as a child in the 90s. I remember the anticipation and excitement around “New Labour”. There was a feeling of change. My mother told me that the Tories supported people who had money, and this was a party who represented people like us.  I remember seeing the crowds on the news cheering after the 1997 Labour victory.

But it wasn’t entirely the promise we’d hoped for. I remember watching the news show the troops going into Afghanistan in 2001 and I actually cried. I thought this was the stuff of history books, not something that actually involved my modern country. An idealistic child grew into an idealistic teenager. My simplistic views were left-leaning: everyone should get along and be treated equally, war is bad and we should look after the planet. I felt strongly about the environment and became a vegetarian (I missed chicken burgers, but felt it was the Right Thing). At school I joined Amnesty and spent lunch breaks hearing stories of torture that left me feeling awful inside. I became drawn to mental health and set my sights on becoming a psychologist, and became involved in politics through the school.

Vince Cable, effective politician, once came round and had a chat with my mum, general all-round nice guy

Vince Cable, effective politician, once came round and had a chat with my mum, general all-round nice guy

Our local MP was the Liberal Democrat Vince Cable and remember him as a very visible member of the community. He visited my school and came round door-knocking and chatted with my mother. He was very well loved locally and gave off a sense of really caring about the local people.  The issues I felt strongly about (increasing access and reducing stigma in mental health, supporting the NHS, sex and relationships education, reducing involvement in foreign conflict, LGBT rights and gender equality, and evidence-based drugs policy) felt more closely aligned with Lib Dem politics than any other party. At university I became a party member and I was later involved in some local campaigning.

Then came the 2010 election. The party I voted for went into power! I was thrilled, my vote was actually represented. Then things began to sour. Prior to the election I hadn’t been aware of how unrealistic the Lib Dem tuition fee promise had been, and the backlash from the people was immense. People protested and were largely ignored. When it came to the Alternative Vote referendum the public seemed to vote to punish, destroying our highly anticipated opportunity to have a fairer voting system. Then the cuts began. At this point I had begun working in the NHS. I had no experience of working in healthcare pre-austerity, but older staff had plenty of stories of how it used to be. Over 6 years of work in mental and physical health, across the NHS and charity sector I never worked in a team that wasn’t being “restructured”. We were fined for not reaching unrealistic targets that did not represent the work we did (as though with less money we would be more productive). Our criteria for accepting referrals grew increasingly stringent, as we turned away people whose suffering  didn’t quite meet threshold. I let my Lib Dem membership lapse and kept my head down when people discussed Nick Clegg and his treacherous party.

Once I started my professional training my time became overwhelmed with professional development. I chose not to walk out on the NHS protests – I couldn’t afford to skip placement time. I didn’t have time or energy to continue in any voluntary work or attend activist meetings. Meanwhile at work I began to get increasing referrals to do therapy with individuals living in poverty; living in fear of eviction, hunger and hostility in their local community. How could I help someone to manage their mood when they lived with the ever-present possibility of destitution? Supervisors advised against being overly critical of the organisation or being “too political”.

Now the election is over and a party I voted to try and keep out of power have somehow commanded a majority. I know I will not be the worst hit. I have a qualification that gives me access to a well-paid job, though not well off I’m reasonably secure. Under a conservative government I’m likely to pay less tax and have more chance of owning my property. But this isn’t what I want. I don’t want to benefit as the most vulnerable members of our society suffer. I know I will feel increasingly impotent in my job with fewer resources limiting my ability to give the support that people need. Increasingly seeing more people who require social intervention rather than psychological. I wonder if in my focus on my career over recent years I’ve stayed too quiet, I’ve let my voice go unheard. I’ve been involved in a very low-effort forms of activism: re-tweets on twitter, signing e-petitions, and the odd blog post, but I could have done more.

Psychologists are criticised for spending a bit too much time “on the fence”, considering everyone’s perspective thoughtfully but not taking a side. My own professional organisation often does not comment on current issues, it isn’t linked to a union and does not wish to be affiliated with the “Psychologists Against Austerity” movement. Where does this lack of involvement come from? Do we kid ourselves that as we work in a “helping profession” we’re already doing enough?

paa twitter

At this point I feel a responsibility to get more involved. Whilst I can’t claim to be the most politically-informed person (my awareness around financial issues isn’t always great and some discussions about the economy and defence can go over my head) I feel strongly about human rights and I see these as threatened. In particular I feel very concerned about the Tory proposal to reduce benefits for those who do not engage in mental health treatment. Psychology and psychiatry already have an ugly history of involvement in past abuses.  I refuse to be a part of this coercion. I have recently joined Liberty and become a Unison member, to play my part in protecting the NHS from what is to come, and am looking into other campaigning groups I can be a part of. I plan on writing more to increase awareness of the issues I feel passionate about. When I’ve built up enough experience I hope to be involved in some psychology skills-based volunteering, helping to increase access to psychological support for people who are not otherwise able to access it sufficiently. I’ve become less energetic and somewhat more cynical as I’ve aged, but my own political views retain some of my childhood idealism, they’re still centred around reducing harm and increasing equality.

Trying to capture a bit of your own youthful idealism and rage? I’ll just leave this here…

This is a really good article on ways of getting active and making a difference

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