A tale of politicians, volunteering and control

It was interesting to see Baroness Neuberger in The Times talking about party politics and controlling volunteering:

I am a Liberal Democrat peer, and have just finished being the Prime Minister’s Champion for Volunteering. Before that, I chaired the Commission on the Future of Volunteering, which had members from all main political parties and none. This is something politicians of all persuasions have, rightly, recognised as being of great importance. This Government has invested both money and political capital in it – especially with V, the youth volunteering charity, and in response to my commission’s conclusions.

Yet the trouble is that politicians also have a sneaking desire to try to control volunteering. Government would like people who are unemployed to volunteer.

Many do and still more will, but we cannot make them. The whole point about volunteering is that it is voluntary.

She was responding to this article about indulging your selfishness:

I was thinking about this selfish selflessness at the Conservative Party’s conference on social action this week. It is easy to be cynical about David Cameron’s insistence three years ago that every Tory MP and candidate set up a constituency project where local people can bring about improvements in their own lives. What better way to remove his party’s greedy, scary, judgmental and uncaring branding than make his footsoldiers dredge canals or coach football teams? And how clever, given opposition is intrinsically reactive, to find a way to look both autonomous and noble.

But here were these Tories, all glistening-eyed about their job clubs or battery-recycling projects or a groovy plan to teach ballroom dancing to tough teens and old-timers alike. Like my friend, they too seemed rather surprised by joy. And there was Matthew Taylor, Blair’s former director of policy, saying that for years he’d begged the Labour Government to champion this type of community action in vain.

Since the welfare state was born, the Left has always disdained charity. Nye Bevan described the voluntary sector “as a patchwork of local paternalisms”. Although the Labour movement was grounded in self-help and resourcefulness, with its Co-operative Societies and Workers’ Educational Assocations, there is a lingering suspicion that a volunteer steals an honest man’s wage packet, that a bunch of woolly do-gooders are a frail substitute for the collective muscle of the State.

But has this tilted too far? At the social action conference a leader of a voluntary body described canvassing a council estate for the Labour Party. A voter demanded: “When are you going to send someone to paint my front door?” So he suggested that, if the council bring the Dulux, perhaps the woman could paint her own front door. Maybe she would, said the voter. Later the Labour candidate who had heard the exchange remarked: “I’ve always suspected, Nick, that at heart you are a Tory.”

Shifting the levers of the economy, channelling the money rivers into the driest places, has transformed untold lives. But it has left others merely as clients of the State, miserable, disempowered, lacking the confidence to make the smallest improvements. Moreover, it ignores the huge wellspring of desire to be useful, to connect with those around us, to do good. It is evident from the 15 British people who last year endured fear and pain to donate a kidney to a total stranger to the millions of teenagers shoving on a plastic bracelet to Make Poverty History.

Is volunteering destined to become just another party political football in the run up to the elections?


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