All stereotypes are in the mind of the observer, but I do now think I could reliably identify the satellites and acolytes of the three main political parties in the UK.
In Brighton (the Liberal Democrats) and Birmingham (the Conservatives) it was strikingly easy to navigate the journey from railway station to conference venue – just follow the people who clearly look as if they’re heading for your target (I could find my way to the Liverpool Labour venue, of course.)
For the Liberal Democrats, casual clothes were the order of the day, matching friendly and earnest discussions about commissions of inquiry and proposals for policy forums. With eight MPs, conversations on the theme of power were rare.
For Labour, the dress code was subtly different. And the conversations, with the Corbyn leadership issues in the foreground, were all about power, or more specifically the current lack of power experienced by the official opposition party, and their obvious desire to regain office.
In Brighton, with the Conservatives, the streets were full of people usually seen around the City and boardrooms of FTSE100 companies. And, of course, the theme was – overtly and implicitly – about power. The well-dressed were there because the economy (probably legitimately) is fuelled by political decisions. The streets were well policed, for obvious reasons, and the conference was well-attended by people like me. (I met several colleagues and even, surprisingly, my own niece, who is now a lobbyist.)
Of course, when we actually meet with serving Ministers, the typical response is to recommend that we meet again in Whitehall, with civil servants present… which is what we’d do anyway. But it’s important because, as I’ve said before, the decisions made by politicians are important. Really important.
Laws and related policies profoundly affect our relationships. The divorce laws, laws on same-sex marriage, pre-nuptial agreements, child-care arrangements, pension laws, benefits regulations and rules for flexible working practices all impact on relationships, and are all matters for politicians. Relationships are at the heart of psychology, and this means that we as psychologists need to be engaged in the debate.
Politicians and government departments have very significant responsibilities in shaping education and employment practice. Most education is state-funded in the UK and therefore politicians and civil servants are responsible for the range, quality and equity of education. As psychologists, we recognize these key social determinants affecting child development, and we have an obligation to be involved in these discussion.
Employment law is also very significant, and taxation rules, rules on benefits and investment decisions by government – as well as the more fundamental health of the economy – all impact on the quality of our employment and will therefore affect our wellbeing. Work that we value, and which gives our lives value, is vital to our wellbeing, and unemployment can be disastrous for our psychological health.
Through the laws it chooses to enact, the government even affects important spiritual aspects of our lives: the role of religion in our political and cultural life, the interpretation of human rights as they apply to freedom of speech and expression.
Similarly, issues related to our arts, culture and leisure are, of course, matters for government, not least through planning and investment decisions. Crime and criminal justice matters are, of course, quintessentially matters for legislators. And, finally, of course, politicians have a key role in drawing up policies and strategies in the arena of mental health.
And all that means, despite the stereotypes, despite the fact that the parties that are not in power are, um, not in power, despite the fact that the party in power exercises that power through a complex, constitutional, civil service... it’s important that we were there.