Dr. Ashley Weinberg is a Chartered Psychologist, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Salford and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He has 20 years experience in lecturing, research and consultancy, having produced four books on well-being at work and the functioning of national politicians. We came across him via his Washington Post piece: "A politician’s mental health is as crucial as a pilot’s".
How would you describe your political path?
I grew up in residential training centre for school leavers with learning difficulties in the 1970s and 80s. The centre was run by my parents and a team from the UK charity MENCAP at a time when ideas about people with disabilities were different to what they are now. Seeing how perceptions could be changed to help young people with different lived experiences to learn skills that would set them up for the rest of adulthood had a huge positive impact on me. It showed me that change is possible, even when the zeitgeist may seem to be against you. As change is always about politics in some way, I think that’s how I became even more fascinated by psychology and politics.
What are the most useful lessons you've learnt on the way?
The fear of doing something new is not a reason to avoid it, nor is fear of asking the questions that need asking. I had the idea to study stress among UK MPs during my MSc in Occupational Psychology after discovering that there had been no empirical studies of the psychological health of national politicians. I was amazed when 124 MPs replied to my survey. Above all, studying this topic was about improving our understanding of the difficulties facing people working in politics and how much support and infrastructure they may need to make the best choices for their electorates.
“Political skills do not need to be Machiavellian. They can be ethical, inclusive, compassionate, and positive.”
What are the top three things that could be done to get courageous, ethical and trusted politicians in your area?
Educational systems familiarize young people with the skills and systems that make up political life. I realise that politicians are not the most popular occupational group. They are nevertheless human and there is a majority about whom we do not hear: those working quietly behind the scenes to represent their constituents and communities. Trust is often a two-way street: a kind of psychological contract. Political skills do not need to be Machiavellian. They can be ethical, inclusive, compassionate, and positive. When we demystify our political systems and increase transparency, we increase the chances of courageous and well-informed decisions made by politicians who, have learned the importance of trust and how it is earned.
Providing elected politicians with the tools to represent voters is important. For example, how feasible is it to represent the interests of tens of thousands of people in an electorate? Are we investing sufficient resources in how democracy is done?
Thirdly, abusive online behaviour is putting people off entering politics. Ensuring respect for all users online would be a positive step.
What ideas and/or people are inspiring you at the moment?
My children. Both have shown me the importance of ensuring people have a voice. I am also hugely impressed by the stories of everyday heroes who are doing their best to improve the lives of others, whether in their work in organisations, the public service, as volunteers or community work. There are also those whose work remains ‘hidden’ and is too often taken for granted: the work carried out by parents and caregivers for example.
What story do you want communities to tell about politicians?
It would be helpful to hear the good as well as the bad. This means ensuring communities have a voice to air their views, including positive messages in addition to calling out poor behaviour. Political communication should be a two-way street. If democracy is about everybody, then it needs to include everyone. This should be possible in an age of such advanced online communication, keeping the need for mutual respect in mind.
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