Julian Mann is vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire.
Is there a link between professional politicians' attitude to public service
and collapsing party membership?
There was much soul-searching in 1993 when Conservative Party membership fell
below 500,000. Many Conservative activists, both politicians and volunteers,
could remember the days in the early 1950s when there were nearly three million
party members. The remnant of that generation of thriving involvement now
belongs to a national political party with fewer than 180,000 members in 2013.
It is patronising to tell them that many of their peers joined the party in the
austeer post-war period for the balls and dances because these elderly members
remember the practical campaigning advantages of a base of active volunteers
that was considerably larger than it is now. It is even more patronising
to accuse them of being stuck in the past because a shrinking volunteer base
hardly augurs well for the future of the cause they have served unpaid for many
decades. It is hardly progressive politics to haemorrhage members unless one
harbours the thought that the modernised few are no longer the 'nasty party'.
The older generation of Conservative volunteers is entitled to ask: what is it
about the current generation of professional politicians that is failing to
inspire volunteer activists? That is not to claim that politicians are entirely
to blame for early 21st century apathy and selfish disengagement – what one might
call the 'whatever' attitude – in wider British society. But it is to raise the
possibility that politicians with little sense of being public servants – what
one might 'rock star politicians' – are morally unable to motivate volunteer
It is not too difficult for those of us like myself who work with volunteers,
and who, God willing, have been chastened by our past mistakes, to work out why
that might be the case. Prima donnas in all walks of life, including and
perhaps especially the Church, tend to be characterised by five behaviours that
are detrimental to building confidence among volunteers:
- They junk the unglamorous jobs on their volunteers as much as they
can get away with.
- They never apologise to a volunteer whom they have wronged in attitude,
word or deed.
- They do not listen to their volunteers and change course when rightly
- They crave the approval and affirmation of people who do not and will never
support the cause rather than persuasively pursuing the principles motivating
- They fail to make time to thank their volunteers individually.
3). and 4). may seem to be conflicting. But actually they are not. When a
leader is guided by clear moral principle, they often know when it is right to
change course and when it is right to stick to their guns. When wrong
judgements are made on the difference between the two, which is inevitable
among flawed humanity, then that is where the ability to apologise must come
The public service ethos in Britain was firmly rooted in Christianity and it is
specious to deny it because of the very designation given to those who serve in
Her Majesty's Government, even today – minister. The New Testament clearly
records Jesus as saying: 'For even the Son of Man came not to be ministered
unto, but to minister, and to give his life as a ransom for many' (Mark 10v45 –
The title 'Son of man' certainly speaks of Jesus' humanity but it also
speaks of his divine authority. The term harks back to the book of Daniel in
the Old Testament when the prophet is given a vision of the Son of man who
comes into the presence of Almighty God, called the Ancient of Days, and is
greatly honoured (Daniel 7v13).
So, the man with supreme divine authority saw himself as a servant. In the
politics of Christian Britain, that ethos fired public servants in Parliament
who did not seem to have much difficulty in inspiring volunteers. William
Gladstone, one of the principal 19th century inspirers of large-scale political
activism, once said: 'All that I live for is based on the divinity of Christ'.
Does not our future as an active democracy depend on the soulful rediscovery of
that Christian ethos of public service?