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.
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.
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?