Volunteers, not pressed men!

largeDefining volunteering is not easy, due to the criteria used by different organisations that use the term. In the case of this poster, the brave lads recruited 100 years ago received the kings shilling, but they chose to sign up, rather than being subject to the conscription of their German counterparts. Charities are often referred to as the Voluntary Sector, because so many of them rely on volunteers to accomplish their work including in their Governance structures. Some people believe that no one operating within a charity should be paid for any of their labour, yet no one who has experienced the work of MacMillan Nurses or visited a Hospice would think that such people should not be paid for their time. Even in the case of private Schools whose charitable status is contentious, it is unlikely that anyone would expect the teachers or cleaners to work unpaid. What is clear is that working as a volunteer can be very rewarding. I coordinate the Street Pastors in Brighton & Hove. We work alongside Police Officers, Doorstaff and Taxi Marshalls and people running a project called Safe Space. Of all of those people only the Street Pastors the Red Cross Volunteers in safe space and Police Specials do so without pay. Yet all start late in the evening and work into the early hours of the following morning. The volunteers do not work less hard than any of the paid staff, they have all been fully trained and in some cases do things that the paid staff are not expected to do. However the volunteers go home feeling rewarded for the time they have given up to help reducing violent crime or caring for those who are sick or who get injured. Fundamentally volunteers are there because they choose to be, their careers do not depend on showing up.

This week in Cardiff the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow was speaking about a crisis in the voluntary work of Political Parties in which he explained that the parties need a major cultural change if they are to appeal to a new generation of  volunteers. Political parties are the “exception to the rule of the expanded role of the volunteer” in modern Britain “I do not detect any crisis between the volunteer and parliament,” he said referring to the way in which Parliament had reached out to the charitable sector. However the same is not true of the relationship between volunteers and party organisations, given the low number of people in the country who are active party volunteers. He said that Parties were failing to engage people because their structures reflected “a mass-production society and, to a degree, the Cold War”, based around a core interest or ideology. Bercow said that “a vicious circle has developed in which the overall membership of party organisations is falling, in part, because would-be volunteers do not think that they are being listened to,”.

Anyone who has followed the activities in Newark over recent weeks would wonder if Speaker Bercow is right. The town has been saturated with volunteers from a range of parties. People such as a Hove resident, who we will call Mike. On his website he writes “Mike, along with many of his colleagues, visited Newark in the run up to the election to help support Robert Jenrick. This is the first by-election the Conservative Party has won as a governing party for 25 years.”. The same could be reported of Tim, Mikes neighbour from Shoreham. This is despite the fact that Newark is 150 miles away from Hove or Shoreham and many of their constituents have never even been to Newark.  Robert Jenrick must be grateful for the support of Tim and Mike although as he explained on Radio 4, the Prime Minister had told every Conservative MP to ‘volunteer’ at least 3 times during the campaign. Although the Prime Minister leads the Government and only the Ministers report to him, he does decide which MPs become Ministers and he has influence with many local Conservative Associations who in turn decide which candidates are selected for future elections. This must make his recommendations to MPs as to how to spend their time outside of work as a great deal more influential than if you or I did so. This makes their decision to visit Newark very different from most other forms of volunteering that most of us would engage in. This ‘voluntary’ support from people such as Mike and Tim with no obvious connection to Newark also gave Mr Jenrick a monumental advantage over the two Independent candidates in the by-election.

If Mike or Tim had volunteered to help out at a foodbank we would probably say well done, and thank them for their sacrifice, even if we are unlikely to benefit ourselves. We might be a bit less impressed if they did so following an edict of the Prime Minister, although it is clear that David Cameron has not even asked Conservative MPs to visit their local foodbank, let alone to work there. However MPs are paid to work for their constituents, not to volunteer for the party promoting its values or to sustain local charities. Those things are what they can choose to do in their spare time, although of course only they can know when they are working and when it is their spare time! Any confusion between what they are doing as a volunteer and what as a paid MP may not be helped by postings such as on Mikes website which implies his support for Mr Jenrick was as constituency MP, not as a private individual!

About ianchisnall

I am passionate about the need for public policies to be made accessible to everyone, especially those who want to improve the wellbeing of their communities. I am particularly interested in issues related to crime and policing as well as health services and strategic planning.
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