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Julian Mann: Is 'rock star political leadership' to blame for the collapse in party membership?

MANN JULIANJulian 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 activists.

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:
  1. They junk the unglamorous jobs on their volunteers as much as they can get away with.
  2. They never apologise to a volunteer whom they have wronged in attitude, word or deed.
  3. They do not listen to their volunteers and change course when rightly persuaded.
  4. They crave the approval and affirmation of people who do not and will never support the cause rather than persuasively pursuing the principles motivating their activists.
  5. 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 into play.

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 - AV).

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?


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