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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Old Labour roots of compulsory community work idea 

The extraordinary tin-ears Labour suggestion to conscript ‘young people’ into a compulsory volunteer workforce is no surprise to those old enough to remember the reality of Old Labour.

Way way back mumble years ago, when the SDP split from Labour and began the long dance to merger with the Liberals the now-defunct journal ‘New Society’ published a study of the attitudes of supporters of each major party to charities and voluntary organisations. As far as I can recall over a quarter-century later it suggested some fundamental differences.

Conservatives, said the article, were often involved in charitable activities, with a bias to fundraising but also for personal-involvement services like the WRVS. They tended to support what they called non-political organisations – defining non-political as not conflicting with Conservative assumptions.

Labour people presented a complex picture. For many, independent voluntary and charitable organisations were a little suspect, even where their aims were supported.

Real work had to be done ‘through Trade Unions’ so there was a parallel structure of ‘Union’ projects shadowing independent initiatives. Where Labour people (especially those with a live commitment to the Labour Party) did become involved in ‘middle-class’ non-Union voluntary activities there was a definite undercover takeover trend. Labour people had to be in control, though an independent façade was useful to suggest support for Labour positions outside that Party.

Of course any voluntarily provided service had to be inferior to a state-provided service and the evolution of society would lead to the withering away f the independent organisations as the State took on its ‘proper role’.

The Liberal Party members and supporters were found to be highly active in voluntary organisations, and to place a value on diversity and empowerment, and exploring different solutions. The article suggested Liberals were less interested in controlling or dominating and more interested in getting jobs done.

And the founding SDP members were found not to be much involved in voluntary organisations at all. (Which was the pot-stirring point of the article at that pre-merger time).

Wonder what a well-structured survey today would find?

I suspect that the instinct to centralise and dominate independent organisations so that their work can be directed into National Ends is part of Labour DNA.

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