Guest Post: Volunteers

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I have been lucky enough to attend the Party conference in Wellington as media. As a writer who has allowed to attend as an observer, it is fascinating to be able to watch what goes on.

One of the things you won’t see much of this in the news is the members. Going by what you see on television, the members are there to clap and laugh at the right times. They are the studio audience providing the soundtrack for the performers onstage.

In reality, political party members are the unsung heroes of New Zealand’s democracy. Many of them do an enormous amount of work for no other reason that, in their perception, they are doing it for the good of the country. Sure, a few of them are ambitious politicians in training, but they don’t tend to stick around.

Most volunteers spend a lot of time doing things that are not fun. They stuff envelopes and deliver pamphlets, sell raffle tickets and ask for donations, knock on doors and erect hoardings. They attend meeting after interminable meeting.

There is no real personal reward for this. Do a good job and the chances are you will be shoulder-tapped for more unpaid responsibility. In fact, membership can be costly as you are forever pestered for donations and required to travel at your own expense.

And not all MPs treat party members well. Some almost seem to regard them as low-level employees. The risk here tends to be greater where the MP does not have a history of time with the party.

This matters, because organised members are crucial force multipliers for election campaigns. They man the infrastructure that truly gives bigger parties the edge over smaller ones. I would bet that a party’s pool of unpaid labour is a bigger predictor of success than its campaigning spending is.

And, most importantly, volunteers are the people with whom unaligned voters are most likely to have contact. They are a vital bridge the Wellington hive and the rest of the country. They give their party some ability to circumvent the media filter.

At the local level, they are just indispensable.

If you are more interested in making a difference than personal glory, joining and being active in a party is something you should consider. You’ll certainly have a bigger impact doing that than by winning arguments on the Internet.

In such matters, National supporters should take encouragement from the conference so far. So far, ministers and party officials have kept much of the focus on the members. There have been expressions of gratitude and morale building for the campaign to come.

Chances are this won’t come through in the media coverage, which tends to focus on the theatrical side of things. It’s a useful reminder that there’s an awful lot that goes on in elections that you just won’t see on the six o’clock news.

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