I have learnt a lot during the last year, during my first year as a councillor on a principle council. Much of this learning has just been about relatively straight forward stuff; stuff like the planning process, stuff that raises questions that have answers, stuff that once you’ve got your head around it you are reasonably well sorted. However, perhaps more profoundly, there’s been some learning that just seems to defy resolution. This learning has emerged from a series of tensions – tensions between different aspects of my thinking and experience, tensions that I’m struggling to reconcile.
One of these tensions has been the need to negotiate the difference between being, on the one hand, a political activist and campaigner, and on the other a politician. Whilst I have experienced no conflict regarding what I believe in and what I’m trying to bring about, I have learnt that how I go about being an effective politician is quite a bit different from being an active campaigner.
In many ways, campaigning on a certain issue is relatively straight forward. Your aim is to not only make an argument to bring about a certain change, it’s to make that argument to as many people as possible in the hope that public opinion will force the relevant decision makers to make that change. Even if, on the surface, your argument is directed at the decision makers, most of the time you are trying to get so many people to support you that these decision makers have no choice but to go in your direction. And to do this any stunt, any publicity helps.
However, as a politician, particularly as a politician from a minority party, you are trying to directly influence these decision makers. And because you need to work closely with them you need to develop a certain relationship with them. In particular, you to need get them to take you seriously. To get them to listen to you and take your views on board you need to develop a certain degree of trust and respect – even if politically you disagree with them. And none of this can easily be achieved by adopting the techniques of an activist. Both techniques can be effective, but perhaps they need to come from different directions.
This particular tension has been most prevalent within Dorset Council’s climate emergency agenda. As a Green Party councillor on the council’s Climate and Ecological Emergency Executive Advisory Panel (CEE EAP) I am experiencing deep levels of frustration (perhaps even anger) at the Council’s (the Chairman’s) overly cautious approach to responding to what I consider to be an existential threat to the long-term survival of humanity. This approach has been to first collect all the evidence, then review it, then develop a strategy, and then (finally) produce an action plan. All very sensible if it wasn’t for the fact that despite having only 8-10 years to make serious reductions in our carbon emissions, and despite declaring a Climate Emergency in Dorset over a year ago, we haven’t even seen a draft action plan yet. I want the Council to show more ambition. I want it to show political leadership. I’m struggling to resolve the activist urge to go public, to attract attention, with the political understanding that such action may well weaken what little influence I do have.
There’s also a tension between being a politician and a philosopher. The political dimension is still the same, that of trying to directly influence the decision makers, of trying to get them to take me seriously and not dismiss me as the holder of irrelevant radical views who can be safely ignored. But this time the tension comes from the opposite direction. Not from the overt actions of an activist, but from the theoretical reflections and considerations of philosophy – from the desire to question basic assumptions, to challenge what we often regard as ‘common sense’. As I have no doubt written on many occasions, in political terms this most often manifests in what I consider our use of an invalid economic theory, one that actually creates individualism and selfish behaviour rather than modelling our economic action on these so-called natural traits. In many ways our current economic model has replaced religion as the source of all meaning and purpose in life. This economic model has become so engrained in our thinking that we generally take its propositions to be just plain ‘common sense’. I genuinely believe this to be not only false, but to be as existentially threatening as our climate emergency. In fact, I consider it to be the main cause of this emergency.
But believing this creates an irreconcilable tension within me. Even if, by some miracle, a majority of councillors elected onto Dorset Council were sympathetic to this alternative view of economics, the Council would still need to operate within the prevailing economic environment and would flounder if they tried to step too far outside. So, what do I do? Do I support decisions that allow, in the short term, the Council and Dorset as a whole to economically flourish within this economic model, even though I believe they are detrimental to the long-term flourishing of human life? Or do I oppose them and risk the short-term suffering of residents when essential services are shut down through a lack of funds?
Part of me believes that whilst this three-way tension, this triangulation between persuasive politics, theoretical philosophy, and direct activism, is irreconcilable, it is also highly creative. Just attempting a reconciliation can lead to new insights. But another part of me just wants to reach for the whisky bottle.