When I embarked on this accidental activist lark, I didn’t realise that training would be involved. After all, ‘training’ sits uneasily with being an ‘accidental’ activist. But as Al Pacino so wisely commented in Godfather III, “just as I thought I was out, they pulled me back in”. In the first cut, apparently, Al actually said: “just as I thought I’d escaped being more professional at this, they sent me for training”. Not many people know that.
This week found me at UCU HQ being trained as an Equality Rep. This was, I must confess, a welcome development. The problem with being an accidental activist is that you spend much of your time making it up as you go along. Which is a polite way of saying that I have very little idea what I’m supposed to be doing. But after the first session of a two-day course, I’m feeling much more confident about what my new role involves.
I very much liked the feisty, red haired Scot who trained us. The most exciting moment of the course was when she referred to us as ‘shop stewards’. My granddad was an engineer and a shop steward and I well remember his brown work coat (he’s on the right in this cartoon drawn by one of his colleagues).
I spent some time as she talked wondering if said coat was still in a trunk somewhere and whether it would look odd if I lectured in it. When I refocused my attention, our trainer was outlining - possibly more usefully – how to use the Equality Act 2010 to safeguard and protect the rights of members.
By the end of the day I left armed with information and ideas about how to develop the equality agenda in my institution. Oh, and I also picked up another t-shirt – ‘defend jobs, defend education’ – to add to my growing t-shirt drawer.
Nothing can, of course, beat ‘on the job’ training. To be an activist, you have to be – amazing revelation coming – active.
This week provided plenty of opportunities for action.
On May Day, Helen, Kate and myself (wo)manned a Labour Women’s Group stall at a May Day Rally. We realised quickly that we need a banner (Helen’s beautiful printed paper sign was good, but it would have been even better in fabric). It was a windy day so we also spent a lot of time running after stray leaflets.
And, of course, Thursday night was Election Night. It saw me and Kate in a nearby constituency ‘getting out the vote’. I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoy door knocking. I thought I wouldn’t, that I’d find it stressful, but you meet nice people, you get to have a chat, and it confirms a sense that most people really are worth talking to. There was a nice moment when a Tory candidate, left in charge of a dog, found it had slipped the leash and had to chase it along a reasonably busy road. I was hoping this might be a metaphor for lost Tory votes (or at least their management of the economy). In retrospect, it would have been more apt had it happened to the Lib Dem candidate.
As the sun set, we drove home to the sound of Talking Heads’ ‘Road to Nowhere’. We sang along loudly, particularly when we came to the line that goes: “they can tell you what to do but they’ll make a fool of you”. That could well serve as the motto for this government.
Labour’s got a long way to go to defeat the Coalition, and as I woke to Labour’s election results I felt disappointed that we hadn’t done better. But perhaps it is good not to be complacent at this stage in the electoral cycle. We’ve made a start but the road ahead is going to be far from easy. I suppose at the very least I can feel happy that I’m starting to understand what activism means.
One burning question, though, remains unanswered: will I get another t-shirt when I complete my course?