Political parties are the "exception to the rule of the expanded role of the volunteer" in modern Britain and are in need of major cultural change to reach out to would-be volunteers, according to the Speaker of the House of Commons.
John Bercow, the Conservative MP for Buckingham, gave a speech in Cardiff today as part of Volunteers’ Week, which he called The Volunteer, Politics, Parliament and Party Organisations.
He said the work of volunteers and voluntary groups was "utterly central to our individual, sectional and collective purposes" nationally, and the secret of the success of these organisations had been "their ability to change with the times".
Bercow argued that volunteers were in many cases political activists, even if they might not be obviously identifiable, or even identified themselves, as such. "If you accept the notion that politics is about determining what a society should be, then a vast swathe of voluntary activity is to a greater or lesser, but rarely an inconsequential extent political," he said.
In his role as Speaker, Bercow said, he had worked to increase transparency and participation in politics and parliamentary process. He listed his own work creating the Digital Democracy Commission and promoting the urgent question mechanism in parliament, and pointed to a rise in the number of ministerial statements made and the creation of "a splendid team of House of Commons staff dispersed all across the country to spread the message" as evidence. "I do not detect any crisis between the volunteer and parliament," he said. "I will strive to ensure this remains so."
Bercow went on to say "with very considerable regret" that the same was not true of the relationship between volunteers and party organisations, given the low number of people in the country who were active party volunteers. He said that being involved in a political party was "a socially worthwhile and deeply public-spirited choice of activity".
Parties were, he said, 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 parties had failed to adapt to the fact that "modern life is increasingly less about groups and more about networks".
According to Bercow, "incredibly sophisticated techniques" to identify potential supporters of a party, most notably used in Obama’s two presidential electoral campaigns, had not translated into the encouragement of volunteering.
"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," he said. This meant party leaders in turn disregarded their members or volunteers, he said, because they feared they would be unrepresentative of the public.
Parties "have to be institutionally capable of conversation with their members if they are to attract new volunteers", and could not thrive otherwise, he said.
"I really hope our party organisations will prove capable of the admittedly substantial cultural change they need to introduce so they are no longer the exception to the rule of the expanded role of the volunteer in modern Britain," he said.