To every wannabe politician: get out there and volunteer

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“The Games Makers stand among the heroes of London 2012,” declared Seb Coe at the Paralympics closing ceremony last Sunday. And for the second time this golden summer, rapturous applause was reserved for the efforts of the volunteers – the biggest UK peacetime mobilisation since the war, a feat rivalling its predecessor in spirit.

The refrain was universal: good, decent folk of this nation, of all creeds and colours, had come together and made Britain proud of what it could achieve. But what was not lost on me was the fact that it showed what more our society is capable of doing for itself.

I can say with pride that I was one of those orange-and-purple shirts. Before, it hadn’t always been such a sure thing, but now, without question, I am glad to have had that experience.

Becoming familiar with other members of my team, I was struck by the sheer variety of walks of life we’d come from. Uniforms were a great leveller; there wasn’t much scope for personalisation, but perhaps that helped. You couldn’t tell much about anyone or assume anything too surely.

So you spoke to them. Strings of conversations gradually sketched for me, in vividly candid terms, the daily lives and worries of those in teaching, public service, business, media; of family life in the rural counties, family life in the inner city.

For someone who fervently believes in taking the broader view, I realised my horizons were more like those of someone lying down on the beach. But what struck me most of all was that it shouldn’t just be me hearing what these folks had to say: politicians ought to be party to these frank exchanges.

Lanarkshire MP and shadow energy minister Tom Greatrex was the only MP to volunteer at the Games. I applaud him – for his organisational prodigy as much as anything else. MPs, I know, have trouble fitting in engagements at the best of times, and wade knee-deep through constituency work during recess.

Maybe if more had taken volunteer roles, there would have been a furore about missed opportunities for those in line behind them. But really, I don’t think it would’ve been a problem. National spirit ran high this August, and, if you set that against the raucous reception Osborne and co. received for various humble cameos, mucking in rather than presiding might have been met with some polite appreciation.

Had they actually been in our two-tone ranks, they would have learned a great deal. In his short speech, Coe’s pointed mention of his frank and moving encounter with a 7/7 witness-turned-Games Maker gave us a flavour how valuable discourse can be.

The teachers I talked to expressed concerns you simply couldn’t imagine telling Michael Gove on an official visit. He’s keen to hear warts and all, but he’ll probably get a tactfully sanitised report. On the job, there’s only a certain amount you will comfortably unload on a suited government minister surrounded by a posse of wonks.

And if, back in Whitehall, testing opinion is deputised to researchers, how can a perpetually hands-full MP ever truly be in touch with the situation on the ground?

Volunteering also brought into perspective the relative narrowness of my social milieu. As an Oxford student, educated with peers who mostly went to Russell Group universities, it was at once sobering and strangely refreshing to quickly learn not to ask things like “Which university did you go to?”  as a matter of course.

But while I may have had this healthy opportunity to step back a little, there are some people at top universities who will be wilfully content to remain in an unworldly bubble. It worries me, because a handful of them, in all probability, will reach the highest echelons of power in our country.

In fact a few are so mollycoddled and distinct from the general student body that they are slightly bonkers: if you look at some of the more esoteric characters in Parliament, they bear so little resemblance to your average well-informed citizen that it’s no wonder people feel like they can hardly relate to anyone on the ballot paper.

It’s made worse by the feeling that they are choosing between careerists with no grounding in reality whatsoever: a far cry from the days when miners and soldiers and shop owners headed to Westminster with the heart of a community behind them.

It so leaves me to stress to anyone who harbours grand ambitions of office – should you condescend to read this – that hours spent involving yourself in community projects and volunteering schemes wouldn’t be wasted. You’ll transparently get an idea of the problems of those you will seek to represent. If you want to claim to know the will of the people, all experience is good experience.

I’m not saying that forcing the House of Commons wholesale into Adidas trackies this summer would have solved all our political apathy problems. To some degree as well, the melting-pot scenario of the Games was a unique one.

But what I am saying is this is precisely what politicians should be more publicly involved in, both for their own good, and for the good of democracy’s health in our nation. Big Dave wants a Big Society, but policy should always start at home.

 

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