The Ideas Factory is a chance for you to pitch your own idea of what should be in the next Liberal Democrat manifesto. The proposal here is not the policy of the Social Liberal Forum. We will however be passing it – and the response it generates – onto the Manifesto Working Group.

The Proposal

Simon Radford:If you have not read Steve Waldman’s ‘The Bill’, I would recommend it.  It follows the life cycle of a campaign promise- Bill Clinton’s pledge for a new domestic Peace corps- through the legislative process to its final implementation and legacy.  The result was ‘Americorps’.

Americorps is something that should intrigue all British liberals.  Even as we have grown more successful as a community-powered party, the viability of our communities has dwindled.  The evidence is everywhere, from the decline of local papers both in quality and quantity to the hollowing-out of the high street by out-of-town shopping behemoths.

Added to this is the ghettoisation of different communities based on income, race and other factors.  The best state schools are overwhelmingly dominated by the middle classes , just as the Grammar schools used to be.  The highest-paid jobs are dominated by those who went to the best universities.  Opportunity, if you are born in many parts of this country, is effectively denied.

Another American book, Robert Puttnam’s seminal ‘Bowling Alone’, chronicled and tabulated the decline of America’s voluntary associations and groups: from bowling teams to political meetings.  We have seen a similar decline in mass membership political parties, trades union and other groups in this country.  At the same time, the main working class employers in manufacturing have given way to smaller, less long-term employment in smaller service companies.  Making cars has turned into flipping burgers.

What these two twin phenomena – the decline of the arena for and willingness to volunteer or associate – have lead to an atomisation of individuals and a shift from a cultural  or class to an economic stratification of British society.

Liberal Democrats have many ideas to combat this drift: from local credit unions, industrial democracy, and decentralisation of taxation, services and political power.  However, what about applying also the Americacorps model to redevelop our city centres while helping people mix and meet people they otherwise would not?

Gap years tend to be confined to those from wealthier backgrounds.  They tend to be with people from the same social background and be based abroad rather than shining light on the hidden poverty in their own country.  So, why not create a Gap Year that is based at least partly in Britain, helps the very poorest in society who participants might otherwise be isolated from and sweetens the deal with some employer sponsorship for work experience to bolster their CVs as well as a small wage?

Teach First has been a real success in getting some of the best graduates into the more challenging schools and, in many cases, persuading them to stay there.  It is not hard to imagine that the skills that a wider volunteering scheme would endow its participants with, would be a very attractive proposition for employers when their course is over, as well as going a small way to introduce Britain to a part of itself that it is all to easy to either mock when Little Britain comes on the TV or worse: forget.


Richard Huzzey: New ways of encouraging volunteering – probably in partnership with existing community groups and charities – is an excellent idea. A healthy national community requires an expansive civil society. It is of course important for liberals that such work is voluntary, and not compulsory, as an alternative to national service, for example. There is a great new initiative (Student Hubs – http://studenthubs.org/) that is promoting the wide variety of volunteering opportunities for students on campuses. It sounds like this would provide similar opportunities for people to find the right opportunity for their skills and interests.

Would it provide some sort of allowance to people, to pay for them to spend a year volunteering?

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3 comments on “Volunteercorps
  1. Simon Radford says:

    Thanks for your comment. The original Americorps gave some student loan relief to those who took part (after university). I would imagine that to make enough people enroll and to make sure that access was open to all, there would have to be some kind of stipend and other incentives. Employer involvement would be one- lots of people enrolled in Teach First because they thought that it would give access to the ‘best’ graduate recruitment opportunities after they were done. Some kind of monetary incentive would have to be another.
    (P.S. I forgot to put my inverted commas around the Americorps link. Sorrry!)

  2. Sara Scarlett says:


    This idea really appeals to me and I believe that without stimulating a more profound civil society, a Liberal government is unlikely to maintain itself.

    When I was an 18 year old and about to embark on a gap year I would have loved to participate in a British ‘Americorps’. However, the alarm bells that this idea immediately sets off – in my mind – are that:

    a) Would the British pubic would be more cynical towards such a scheme/organisation?

    b) Would participants be taken advantage of?

    America has had to cultivate stronger elements of civil society due to the lack of an expansive welfare state. I find it unlikely that British teenagers would take an ‘Americorps’ style pledge. Is this purely cultural? I don’t have the answers in that respect, however, there is so much potential for creating a scheme that could benefit both participants and their communities.

    Volunteering has to be more than dud internships where individuals spend their summers making coffee and photocopying, which has unfortunately been my experience thus far. Nothing is more likely to put individuals off giving their time freely than being used as ‘slave labour’. Participants in an ‘Americorps ‘ style scheme have to be interacting with the community on a profound level. We can use our young people better but first said scheme has to appeal to Middle Class school leavers.

    The way to overcome these problems is to make the volunteer streams specific, carry a worthy financial incentive (a reduction of University/training tuition fees, a small wage, sponsorship from major companies) and work towards a certificate or qualification that holds real weight with future employers and indicates skills (interpersonal skills, patience, self motivation… etc.) that a University degree alone does not.


  3. John Minard says:

    Interesting our Canadian cousins are thinking on similar lines – here (forgive the fairly right wing rag web site), Justin Trudeau’s call to youth to serve.


    I have been thinking along these lines for quite some time now based upon the need to give youth a feeling of purpose and self esteem, belonging, a sense of society, of community and human interdependency that stretches and matures them as individuals. However I struggle to see how a voluntary scheme will reach the inner city kids (and their parents) and including those from ethnic and religious minorities who would arguably benefit from it the most.

    It would be no less a good thing for attracting middle class youth but perhaps so much better if it attracted the less fortunate and equipped and inspired them to break the generational cycles and peer groups they often get locked into.

    I’m uncomfortable with the idea of compulsion and any scheme would need to adequately protect volunteers and clients. Done right it is likely to be expensive in the short-termist sense of quick returns demanded by the ruling media class.

    I’m also uncomfortable with the often used terminology in this context of ‘the nation’ and almost quasi militaristic call to arms to serve when we really mean ‘the community’ and the reasons one might actually feel patriotic and to have a sense of ones place in time and of destiny; something bigger than oneself (and increasingly the threat is from nature anyway). But I appreciate how such more easily definable terms can attract youth – for good, as well as bad.

    Neither should it be a purely narrow financial transaction of gain. I’m stuck with how it would become both genuine and aspirational to youth and how they themselves would formulate and communicate it especially with the school leaving age being raised. There are many and varied voluntary schemes out there which really do wonders for young people but they tend to attract those you have more motivation and self esteem to begin with.

    But also not only about youth (as youth gets older) but equally there is arguably both a need for and benefits to participants in the ‘Civil Defence’ organisations that Nick Clegg floated on his leadership campaign.

    We live in terribly materialistic, selfish times were I am convinced low self-esteem propagates continually to undermine society. Anyone who successfully realises JFK’s famous words in actions will be revolutionary.

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