The people behind the podium

A treatise on the life and mating habits of the party political activist

Artillery Row

“Wonderful reception on the doorstep.” The photos are always the same: a minor politician, surrounded by half a dozen beaming activists, thrilled at spending 5 minutes in the company of the Junior Minister for Potholes and Verges. “Residents agreed it was time to get on with the job,” they tweet, in a giddy flurry — wisely skirting over the twenty doors slammed in their faces, and the woman who set her Dobermann on them. Can having the seat of your trousers sewn back on be claimed on expenses?

Regardless of party, the image is universal. The gauchely held placards, the rictus grins. One or two people looking very serious indeed: elect Fleur de Rozarieux, your Lib Dem candidate for Abbyvale Ward — stop Brexit now. (Fleur will make herself available to help residents at all times, in between completing her A-Levels.) Labour activists follow the same blueprint, but with more colourful hair. And the promise of far greater influence over the Gaza Strip.

It’s hard not to wonder, as the various machines splutter into campaign mode for yet another election, what possesses a subsection of our fellow citizens to devote so much time to pushing leaflets through letterboxes — in exchange for little more than a selfie with Oliver Dowden, or a brief, stolen glimpse of Angela Rayner uncrossing her legs. 

The older activists, I get. It’s nice to get out for a bit of air, the walk will do them good, a pub lunch might be on the cards, and there are almost certainly some noble echoes of civic commitment bubbling away, too. But the younger activists are, for the most part, a kookier breed. 

Why do they do it? It’s a question I’ve often pondered, so much so I wrote a play for the BBC about it. 

They insert themselves into an esoteric and largely hidden fraternity

In the days of mass party membership, it made much more sense. The main parties were a far more representative cross section of society. There were still the tribal elements, but enveloping this were real opportunities. The Labour movement offered not just a social circle, but education. “Conny clubs” were at the heart of their local communities, countrywide. The parties were woven into the structure of society. This breadth of engagement has died away. Political parties are cliques. Increasingly, other activist structures — like the current Stonewall-defined incarnation of the gay rights movement — feel like cliques, too.

The young people who fall into party politics are not joining something, therefore, but escaping. They are on the run: from school or university; from their home lives; from personal disappointment; from themselves. They insert themselves into an esoteric and largely hidden fraternity, where nutty proclamations and whacky behaviour are met not just with acceptance but prestige. I asked a friend, who spent much of their youth submersed in left-wing politics, what they thought motivated their young comrades. “Oh mental illness,” came the response. 

A joke — but with a sizeable nugget of truth attached. The party I know best is the Conservative Party, having spent four years as a member, though my observations, drawn from an Attenborough-like study of young politicos in the wild, apply, I think, across the board. For a start, there is the ready-made hierarchy, one that a keen young member can successfully climb in inverse proportion to their status elsewhere. The eccentric Law student can opine drunkenly on bringing back the rope, and be met not just with agreement, but elevation. “Last night I had dinner with Robert Jenrick,” is a viable boast — even a chat-up line — rather than a bizarre statement greeted with blank stares. 

Of course, this behaviour is mirrored amongst young left-wing warriors. “Full communism now!” is a stupid thing to want — but, in the tents at Labour Conference, it can get you not just a free drink but even a bonk. “I shared a vegan flat bread with Lloyd Russell-Moyle,” would be a red flag elsewhere; at a Free Palestine event, it’s just one of many red flags with cachet.  

To suggest that everyone in politics is broken would be wrong

I don’t pretend to have been immune to any of this behaviour, but the conclusion I have reached is that the more immoderate and obsessive your political activity, the more likely you are to need to fix something else in your life. For me, I joined the Conservative Party precisely when I was least satisfied with my career: I’d been a reasonably successful comedy writer and slammed into a professional brick wall. I’d voted to leave the European Union, and then it appeared like that vote was going to be neutralised. “Taking back control” had never seemed more necessary. 

(I still think leaving the European Union is the better choice: but the logic of it needs to be followed through, and that currently isn’t happening. I genuinely wonder about the people who are still, in their social media silos, banging on about it from morning until night. It is unhealthy, and I suspect in many cases a substitute for more meaningful activity — be that political work which makes a useful, tangible difference, or, more likely I suspect, something personal and therefore scarier than pirouetting round and round 2016.)

To suggest that everyone in politics is broken would be wrong: there are still some excellent politicians about, and some wise, funny and public-spirited individuals at all levels, though in virtually all cases these people tend not to have grown up in the activist hothouses of their respective traditions. 

But there is a lot of fragility, too. I particularly worry — if worry is the right word — about the young “professional” activist-pundits. Barely out of school, they pop up on social media and occasionally on political programmes or in newspapers, thrilling small groups of ideologues with their stunted rehashes of Thatcherism or Bennism or Leave/Remain, whilst opening themselves up to vast amounts of abuse. I can’t help feeling they’d be infinitely better off just … stopping. Logging off, and getting a girlfriend. Or a boyfriend. Or — hell, it’s 2022 — both. 

“We need more young people in politics,” proclaims everybody from Ann Widdecombe to Laura Pidcock. But we don’t. We need fewer young activists, who know of nothing except activism. They would be far better off building themselves lives in the real world, before they even consider influencing the real world lives of others. And, if they must continue, I recommend smearing some meat paste on a stick — a perfect treat for those snarling Dobermanns.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover