Opinion: What do the Lib Dems and the Big Society have in common?

Being a student, I am lucky enough to have very flexible working hours, and I’ve put these to good use this autumn helping with Brian Paddick’s campaign to become the first Lib Dem Mayor of London.

Something I’ve noticed with creeping inevitability about the campaign is the similarities between myself and the other people turning up on Fridays – the vast majority of whom are male and pale like me.

This is symptomatic of a wider problem with volunteer organisations in general, and cuts to the heart of a political philosophical gulf between us and the tories: volunteers are people in a position to volunteer.

While conservatives were perfectly at home with the opinionated, tweeded philanthropists of the nineteenth century carving their personal beliefs on the only welfare system around – charity – it rightly incensed Liberals that the vulnerable and the poor could be denied society’s aid because the busybody holding the purse strings thought sex outside of marriage was a sin. This is the Big Society – volunteer run services – and it we have a long tradition of opposing it.

The fight that we fought to take the tweeded opinions out of welfare – by inventing and building the welfare state following the 1906 Liberal Landslide – was hard fought and a victory well won, and it is imperative that this coalition doesn’t undo that work*.

However, this market failure is a wider problem in the economic meritocracy in general – highlighted by unpaid internships, where people obtain valuable work experience by working for less than minimum wage (sorry, “volunteering.”)

It is also illustrated in hard up, volunteer run organisations like the Lib Dems – how many of our MPs are millionaires? Is that because they were able to fund their campaigns to the eyeballs and win, unlike the rest of our volunteer candidates? How many of our candidates were selected because they had the time (and money) to attend countless action days or even volunteer in the campaign office on Fridays?

It is, though, of far greater significance that this market failure also runs rampant over the rest of the economy. It is absolutely imperative that we protect the state delivery (or at least state commissioning with very strict compliance rules,) of public services so that the tweeded opinions don’t come out of the woodwork again, once the floodlights of democracy are removed from service delivery.

We must also come up with a solution to the internships problem, or risk pouring our meritocracy down the drain and reverting to a class-based society. This is also, incidentally, the philosophical basis for insisting that Free Schools adhere to national standards, like the national curriculum – to stop the vital provision of free education falling into the hands of someone who would abuse it by imposing on it their own personal view on truth.

If we are to create and sustain a society where people aren’t enslaved by their poverty, we need to do something about volunteers like me. I’m not sure what the solution is; clearly we can’t and shouldn’t ban volunteering, and destroy the many vital and good organisations that keep our country a safer and happier place, as well as unjustifiably tread on freedom’s well-squashed toes. I’m not sure what the answer is, but we mustn’t lose sight of this question – it challenges our very Liberalism.

* Note: I’m not saying I, or you, buy the Guardian‘s shrill rhetoric on “the cuts,” but I believe that it is widely held by charities and other apolitical organisations that this government is absolutely destroying disability benefits in this country (on the pretext that the tabloids think some disabled people are faking it) and we can’t and shouldn’t ignore that, or dismiss it as spin.

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  • david thorpe 17th Dec '11 - 2:13pm

    very good article Joe. The Market failure is that the market isnt free, and it isnt free because netiwehr the Tories notr Labour want it to be free. Labour see the market as a series of vested interests(which it is) incompetition to each other, and Lbaours view is that there guys(the Unions) are the group in the makret they will side with, even if that damages wider society and economy.
    The Tories essentially like the current market system because theya re at the top of it, and feel it must be free and therefore doenst need to be ammended.
    Liberals have always believed the market to be unfree, creatingt the welfare state was deisgned to provide a safety net and a minimum from which people could advance. Labour have endorsed the welfare state but unfortunatelty not done anything about social mobility, partly because they believe those who acjieve socil mobility will vote tory.
    Lib Dems and Liberal Tories have always tried to make equality of opportunity key, from Beveridge creating the newest incarnation of the welfare state, to Tory eductaion secretray RAB Butler creating free secondary school eductaion.
    There is a major problem now though, which is that labour and some sections of the Lib Dems have lost their radicalism, their ambition in relation to welfare.
    When Beveridge created the welfare state, he said he wanted to abolish the five great evils, ignorance, squalor, idleness, hunger and disease. Thats a huge and radical ambition, not yet completely achieved, the Lib Dems must be prepared on welfare to be radical, to act as though there are no sacred cows, just as tghey must, in the other area of ouyr party’s tradition, be prpeared to ensure that there are no scared cows in the marketplace, that the market is opened to all, and the most innovatove and efficient survive.
    This has not been happening for decades in industries such as finacnial services.
    those twin areas represnet the lib dem tradition, we must be radical in both areas.

  • Richard Swales 17th Dec '11 - 3:50pm

    So the volunteers are mostly male and pale, because they are the people in a position to volunteer? Really the women in your age group never have as much free time as the men? I suspect there are other reasons why they are not volunteering which you should look into.
    (This possibly applies to the “non-pale” too, although as I understand it, holders of UK citizenship living in London are still as a majority “pale” – although it may still be disproportionate in your team).

  • I am an ardent supported of Land Value Tax (the pro’s and con’s are well aired)….

    As far as ‘volunteerin’ goes it should only ever be “as well as” and not “instead of”….(My problem with Cameron’s “Big Society” is that it is, too often, the latter). However, a major drawback with ‘volunteering’ is the “Chief and Indian” syndrome; too many volunteers see themselves as ‘organisers’.

  • I’m not in favour of the big society, People volunteering to do good deeds is great. But when ever anyone tries to explain what the big society a refers to you get this muddle of ideas from all over the shop. It’s a buzz phrase and that’s all it is. When ever Cameron mentions it I suspect it may have something to do with not paying people to do the jobs they are trained for and hobbits or something.

  • volunteers are people in a position to volunteer.

    By this argument, most volunteers should be unemployed. After all, they have more time on their hands than anyone else.

    They are certainly in a better position to work in campaign offices on Fridays.

  • Cllr Steve Bradley 19th Dec '11 - 2:08am

    Joe – the majority of volunteers in the office may be white males, but they’re working on a campaign (for the London Assembly) where the vast majority of our candidates are female, and where minority candidates are also healthily represented. How does that equate to a lack of interest amongst non-white males in political volunteering/involvement ?

    I do agree with your point about money and success in politics, though. For example – you will get nowhere on the London Assembly list unless you’re prepared to spend approx £4,000 merely on leaflets and a single mailing to party members. The party is rightly working to ensure we have better gender and ethnicity-based representation. A willingness to tackle the ‘class’ issue in our representation is much less evident, and a selection process which requires spending thousands to have even a half chance of getting onto the London Asasembly does not bode well for this changing.

  • Cllr Steve Bradley 19th Dec '11 - 1:38pm

    Mark – I wasn’t implying that candidates only spend their own money, so apologies if it read that way.

    However – in a discussion of ‘class’, it’s true that not only are people from more privileged backgrounds likely to have direct access to funds themselves, but they are also much more likely to know other people of means who can fund them too. So I’m not sure that a system of using other people’s money would necessarily change the profile of those involved with the party that much. Is it a surprise that we have a public school-educated Oxbridge ‘elite’ at the top of our party ?

    I agree largely with the point you make about fundraising, but I believe your emphasis here is too narrow. I would argue that we don’t let our candidates actually CAMPAIGN in selections – of which fundraising is only a part. We need candidates with good campaigning instincts and ideas, yet we completely straight-jacket them with rules in the selection process so that everyone has the same pitifully few outlets to show their stuff. With only one piece of literature allowed for all candidates in a selection, for example, the only real differentiatior is quality of layout and access to funds (i.e. the ability to do slicker glossier leaflets, to post rather than hand-deliver, to mail all voters rather than a selection). So our current rules actually DO favour those who can get their hands on funds one way or another, albeit within the context of a very limited process full stop. Fundraising is just one aspect of being a good rounded campaigner, and in my view should never be the main focus of who or how we select. Some also draw a correlation between gender and fundraising as well (not a view I support personally).

    Finally – we need credible candidates standing for election with a range of skills. Very often it’s more the candidate’s job to be an appealing, inspirational and motivating figure for members, in the knowledge that that is likely to lead to greater fundraising, than it is to necessarily be the one rattling the tin directly themselves. Paradoxically – the more likely we are to win an election, the larger the organisation we understandably have around it, and therefore the more likely we are to have other people taking the lead in fundraising. The importance of the candidate to directly run fundraising themselves arguably increases as our likelihood of winning the seat they’re going for decreases, because the ‘team’ become much smaller and the workload therefore much more concentrated. Just like candidates in less successful areas end up doing a lot more of the workload full stop – literature, delivery etc -than those in target seats do. And let’s not forget that fundraising is a means to the end of securing more votes, more volunteers and more support – and not an end in itself. We could put forward realms of candidates with privileged acquaintainces and the ability to shake money out of trees, but that’s of only limited use if they can’t inspire and motivate voters and volunteers and connect with the electorate. We need to be selecting rounded candidates that reflect the broad range of campaigning skills required, including but not predominantly fundraising. And who reflect society itself as well, including class. We shouldn’t strive to be the political wing of Foxtons estate agents.

  • Dane Clouston…. Posted 19th December 2011 at 2:16 pm …………..Basically you have to enthuse people. Stay in the EU? Join the Euro? I don’t think so! Until we leave the EU, the LibDem party is branded with it…….

    Enthuse people? Which people? Those who believe we should leave Europe already have a home; it’s called the Tory party (and the right of that party to be more specific) I am pleased to be ‘branded with it: I am, or rather was, a LibDem.The current disasterous state of the party is not because we stuck to our core beliefs but because we abandoned them.
    The ‘Good Riddance’ article takes us to our past not our future. ….” over centuries this country has made her living (and endured much of her dying) around the world”…19th Century speak.
    Talk of Asian/US markets are great but what will we sell them? We manufacture little that they cannot make cheaper than us; that’s the reason that, although our exports to e.g. China have increased, our imports have increased by far more and the trade inbalance has widened.
    In march 2011 our “export gap” was £19.8bn with China, £3.2bn with India, and £1.8bn with both Russia and Brazil. If you have a ‘magic wand’ to create a ‘turnaround scenario’ please share it…..

    ‘. There is every prospect of being able to negotiate favoured access, not least because we are their largest export market.

    More fundamentally,

  • Dane (may I call you Dane)…
    Considering the constant barrage of anti-European rhetotic from most of the media one could well believe that there are NO positives in belonging to the EU. Strange then that almost all our continental neighbours don’t have the same phobia.
    As for the ‘poll’…If, after days of “Rule Britania” and “British Bulldog” headlines following Cameron’s “veto”, only half of those polled wanted to withdraw I take that as a positive. Those who want to leave the EU usually complain about EU regulations and the CAP and yet seem to support a ‘Swiss approach’ to the EU; perhaps they should examine the Swiss farming subsidy and the fact that it adheres to almost all EU regulations.
    That aside please explain what our sudden surge of exports into Asia/ US will consist of?

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