Volunteers make the world go round: we must thank them

by Peter Watt

Everyone loves an activist. Political parties simply couldn’t operate without them. Those with shared values and purpose, who dedicate themselves to furthering the success of their party by spending hours fundraising, leafleting, stuffing and knocking on doors. My personal pet hate over the years has always been street stalls – I hate them. But elections couldn’t be won without them, as the machinery of delivery would quite simply grind to a halt.

But there are other forms of activism that are not overtly political, but that nevertheless are also values lead and also worthy of merit. The chair of the community group, the scout or guide leader and those that run sports clubs on a Saturday morning. What about magistrates, hospital visitors or those who spend time cleaning out canals. Or samaritans, trustees or school volunteers. All examples of people who give up their unpaid time to be active in the pursuit of something that is for the good of others.

Just think about it. Could you really be a parent, or work or volunteer at something else, and still be active enough in the Labour party to get noticed? Possibly; but it would be pretty difficult and you almost certainly wouldn’t see very much of your family.

And to be selected as a candidate, certainly in the Labour party, you will need to have clocked up the miles canvassing, leafleting and the rest. Of course you will also probably need to have done some other non-political things. But if you haven’t worn out some serious shoe leather over the years then forget it. You will certainly need some war stories from the campaign trail that you can pepper your selection speech with. In other words, we are very good at recognising party activism, but not so good at recognising other forms of activism.

And at a time when party politics is seen as being pretty self-interested, our attitude to an activism that is self-interested is probably not helpful.

But to be fair, the same indifference to community activism is true outside of politics. Generally, we all just expect that someone will be running the local scout group, sports club or whatever. We rarely stop and think that it is being done for free; that they don’t actually need to be doing it. In fact these thousands of activists are pretty damn essential to the smooth running of many of the things that we take for granted. Essential and unrewarded. Of course there are civic and national awards that are given out, but most activists are barely thanked.

I think that the Labour party should start to do something about this.

As a party we should spend some time and effort recognising activism that is not directly party political. We’ve done it before, by inviting people to speak at conference for instance. But we need to go further. It may be interesting to have long list of positions that you have held in the party. But does it make you a rounded person who would make a great MP or councillor? On its own absolutely not. Candidates should be invited to describe their non-political activity on their selection CV. And shortlisting panels should be specifically invited to explore this with candidates.

And the party should appoint a national skills officer who would coordinate our approach to the harnessing of the broad range of skills and experiences that members and supporters have. We should be showcasing people on our website, at our conferences and in our media output. Ed and the shadow cabinet should make them a key constituency, and go and meet and interact with them. The message should go out that Labour welcomes, values and respects people who are activists in their communities.

Those are all things that the party can do. But we should also make recognising and rewarding activists a key part of our manifesto. If we agree that much of what we value would not happen without those dedicated enough to do it in their own time, then as a society we should recognise and value them formally. So what about reductions in council tax if you are engaged in some form of local community activism? You can get a reduction if you are low waged or not in work. So why not reward someone with a reduction if you run a local football team on a Saturday morning? Or extra points for the housing list if you run the local St John’s Ambulance? And then what about government working with sports and leisure service suppliers, so that they organise a reward scheme for community activists? If we really put our minds to it we could come up with a strong package of reward and recognition for those who give up their time for others.

Because it’s not just political parties that need activists. It’s about time that we remembered this and offer better support, reward, and recognition to those who choose to be active in non-political ways.

Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party.


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6 Responses to “Volunteers make the world go round: we must thank them”

  1. This sounds rather like David Cameron’s big society and that is not meant as a criticism. What is missing from both however is the exploitation of the enormous pool of experience and know how from retired business people, especially from those who are well versed in online business strategy.

    What this country needs, and has needed for a long time is more business entrepreneurs and it is often only the fear of the unknown that prevents people who are perfectly capable of embarking on a business career from doing so. I do not suggest that anyone leaving a seminar will immediately seek to do this but it is a fact that the better informed they are, the more likely it is that they will know how to seize an opportunity when one presents itself.

    What a government of whatever persuasion can do to help this process would be to address the burden of regulation and taxation on small businesses, especially start ups and the question of banking support that at present always seems to be predicated on the net equity value of the applicant’s family home.

  2. Robin Thorpe says:

    I am pleased to see that a senior figure in the Labour Party has recognised this and furthermore is writing about it; when Cameron first mentioned his Big Society one of my first reactions was to wonder how many MPs (of any party) have been school governors, football coaches or guide leaders. Politicians of all leading parties talk about creating a better society, but there aren’t many who seem to actively engage in their community. Ian Lucas MP is the one exception that I am aware of (I’m sure there are others); he served as a school governor and on the board of his local hospital. He has also had a professional career outside politics; if only there were more people with this type of background perhaps the views expressed by Peter might gain momentum.

    I often agree with the sentiments expressed by Peter, I think perhaps that Peter gives a different perspective to others at the top of party because he is no longer part of the central administration. Too often Westminster politics is driven by focus groups and the media; is this because the professional politicians see only data and not people? If Micheal Gove, for example, had any inside knowledge of schools would he have withdrawn the curriculum (fresh off the printing press) without having a replacement ready? He may have a vision for how he believes schools should operate, but in reality he is a universe away from understanding how they are managed day-to-day.

  3. The Future says:

    Good news Peter. When it comes to street stalls they’re about the most inefficent use of everyones time so you never need do one again! Think about it, sitting around waiting for people to come to you (which they never do) or getting round peoples houses and finding out directly what matters to them?

    Stick to knocking on doors. Far better use of everyones time.

  4. Henrik says:

    Splendid idea, Peter – great way to build a Big Society.

    Sorry, couldn’t restrain myself. Actually, some sensible thinking, there, destined for abject failure as far as the comrades are concerned, because of the missing word: “government”. How can you possibly have hundreds of folk on high State salaries and great pensions involved? How, without that, could you possibly have Labour in any way interested?

  5. Rachel says:

    Brilliant article. But community activists need to be able to access political machines if they want to be selected as PPCs.

  6. Mark Walker says:

    I think as a party we could do more, like open up our GC’s and All Member Meetings as oppertunites for local groups to recruit volunteers.

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