Wally Harbert: Why not community service for toffs?

Politics has changed and a yawning gap has developed between the lives of politicians and those of their constituents, says our guest columnist

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

Research into last year’s riots demonstrates the enormous gap in lifestyles between the haves and the have-nots. Disadvantage and deprivation gnaw away at self-esteem and confidence so that daily humiliation and despair slip easily into burning resentment and anti-social behaviour.

Few outside poor communities recognise this. People such as the postwar Prime Minister Clement Attlee and the social reformer William Beveridge, who spent part of their formative years living and working among poor people in London, had an instinctive understanding of the issues. So has President Obama, who was a community worker in a disadvantaged area of Chicago before embarking on a political career. All three worked among disadvantaged people and counted them among their personal friends.

Sadly, most leading politicians today have been well insulated from the sharp end of society and fail to understand the hand-to-mouth existence led by so many. They see only the negatives – not the strengths and resilience displayed by people facing the most gigantic odds.

Peggy Jay, the wife of Douglas Jay, who was Economic Secretary to the Treasury in Attlee’s government, described how Attlee once told her husband: "Douglas, do you know that if you slip a piece of cardboard into your shoes it will help to keep your feet dry in wet weather?" Both politicians followed lifestyles that were not much different from those of many of their constituents. Politics has changed and a yawning gap has grown up between the lives of politicians and their constituents.

Too many politicians of the left and the right have led insular lives, sheltered from the realities that shape the beliefs and behaviour of large segments of the population. If a period of community service were included in the curricula of public schools, whereby young people undertook tasks in socially deprived areas, we might again breed politicians with an understanding of the lives of their electorate.

Only by living in poor neighbourhoods, making friends locally and sharing the joys and disappointments of local life is it possible to appreciate the toughness and the spirit of self-sacrifice often present in these areas. The National Citizen Service is commonly advanced as a means of helping young people from poor backgrounds to improve their understanding of the world – but learning is a two-way process. There is a compelling need for affluent young people, who may be called upon to make political decisions in future, to rub shoulders with a wide cross-section of the public and learn how others lead their lives.

Community service is not just a means of teaching the underclass more about the world in which they live. It is also a way of creating mutual understanding to help eradicate some of the glaring divisions in society.

Wally Harbert has held senior positions in the voluntary sector and is a former president of the Association of Directors of Social Services. His book Baby Boomers and the Big Society was published in March 2012 by Grosvenor House Publishing

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