Page last updated at 08:52 GMT, Thursday, 2 June 2005 09:52 UK

The politics of volunteering

By Brian Wheeler
BBC News politics reporter

If there is one thing all politicians agree on it is that voluntary work is a good thing.

Dad's Army
"It is easy to romanticise about a Britain now gone..."

But it is only in the past few years that helping out in the community has become a political idea in its own right - trumpeted by parties of all persuasions as a potential cure for society's ills rather than just a private act of generosity or goodwill.

Like most things in modern politics, this phenomenon can be traced back to Margaret Thatcher.

Lady Thatcher came to power in 1979 with a mission to shrink the state and, as she saw it, set people free from a suffocating reliance on central government or the local council to provide everything from housing to healthcare.

A keen advocate of Victorian values, Lady Thatcher envisaged a return to an era of self-reliance and philanthropy - and a key part of this was what became known as the "voluntary sector".

The next decade will be defined by a simple idea; 'we are all in this together.'
Tony Blair in 1997

In a speech to the Women's Royal Voluntary Service in 1981, she said: "The willingness of men and women to give service is one of freedom's greatest safeguards. It ensures that caring remains free from political control."

The reality behind such rhetoric was that charities and voluntary groups were often expected to step into the breach when the Thatcher government cut spending on services.

Civic bonds

And, critics claimed, the greed and consumerism engendered by Thatcherite economic policies succeeded in turning the UK into a more mean-spirited and uncharitable place to live.

When New Labour came to power, it pledged to repair the community ties it believed had been shattered by Thatcherism.

In one of his first speeches as prime minister in 1997, Tony Blair told residents of the Aylesbury Estate, in South London: "The next decade will be defined by a simple idea: 'we are all in this together.'

"It will be about how to recreate the bonds of civic society and community in a way compatible with the far more individualistic nature of modern, economic, social and cultural life."

But, for Labour the voluntary sector, which had grown under the Conservatives, was not the obvious choice for a means of achieving this.


Labour had created the Welfare State, in part, to free the working class from the clutches of charity.

In 1988, Gordon Brown described charity as a "sad and seedy competition for public pity".

Gordon Brown
A golden thread runs through history, says Gordon Brown

But in government Mr Brown, like the rest of New Labour, began increasingly to see charity groups and voluntary participation as the answer to many of the social problems it was trying to get to grips with, such as the growth of a disenfranchised underclass with few links to mainstream society.

Getting people out of their houses and flats - to join residents' associations, community groups or even political parties - was seen as a way to combat fear of crime and improve the quality of life in Labour's working class heartlands.

But unlike in the days of Old Labour, ministers stressed the importance of informal, highly-localised initiatives, rather than centralised planning.

Launching a campaign to increase voluntary participation in 2001, Mr Brown said: "Politicians once thought the man in Whitehall knew best. Now we understand that the... mother from the playgroup... might know better."

Despite this rhetoric, New Labour's early years in government were marked by centrally-controlled, Whitehall-devised initiatives designed to boost voluntary participation.

One such initiative, The Experience Corps, was launched in a blaze of publicity in 2000. The ideas was to recruit a "dad's army" of the over 50s, tapping into the wealth of expertise and experience of people in later life.

Voluntary activity

The government spent 20m on the initiative but pulled the plug on funding in 2003 after it failed to meet its target of recruiting 250,000 volunteers.

The organisation has carried on as a "voice" for older volunteers, with funding from private industry.

In 2003, the government set itself a target - the ultimate New Labour token of intent - of increasing voluntary participation by 5% by 2006.

Last year it claimed to be ahead of schedule, having succeeded in getting one million extra people involved in "community participation".

But critics claimed the government's definition of what counts as voluntary activity is so wide as to be almost meaningless.

Brown's vision

According to the Home Office's citizenship survey, volunteering includes "giving advice to someone", "looking after property or a pet for someone who was away", babysitting and "keeping in touch with someone".

And, as the report concedes, extrapolating from survey percentages to the population of England as a whole is "not an exact science".

Nevertheless, as Labour begins its third term, its vision of a society of active, engaged citizens pulling together to make life better for each other remains a key touchstone.

Launching the year of the volunteer in January this year, Mr Brown said - contrary to a famous phrase attributed to Margaret Thatcher - "There is such a thing as society: a community of communities, tens of thousands of local neighbourhood civic associations, unions, charity, voluntary organizations and volunteers".

But he added: "You do not rebuild communities from the top down. You can only rebuild one street, one neighbourhood at a time".

And he attempted to strike a prime ministerial note as he stressed the importance of the voluntary sector - and volunteering - to his vision of Britain.

"It is easy to romanticise about a Britain now gone, [but] I believe that there is indeed a golden thread which runs through British history not just of the individual standing firm for liberty but also of common endeavour in villages, towns and cities - men and women with shared needs and common purposes, united by a strong sense of duty and fair play."

But the problem - outlined by Mr Blair in his speech on the Aylesbury Estate 1997 - of how to motivate an increasingly fractured and individualistic population to put aside their selfish concerns for the common good remains as real as ever.

And - as Mr Blair conceded during the recent election campaign - for the people living on that estate and others like it there is still a long way to go before it can be overcome.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific