Change troubles all organisations.
David Cameron tried to change the conservatives. He went to Greenland, promised a newer kinder conservative government. Jeremy Corbyn wants to change the labour party. He claims a different style as a party leader, a softer, more authentic and honest approach to politics.
Both men have found how difficult it is to change an organisation especially when facing the challenge of a society that looks very different to the way it was a week ago. Cameron’s resigned and Corbyn faces a leadership election as I write.
Both remind me of youth hostels, the changes they have faced and the challenges they faced in changing.
One of the men involved in changing youth hostels was also an early apostle of change in the Labour Party. David Kingsley helped Harold Wilson in his attempts to modernise the ‘outdated penny farthing machinery’ of the Labour Party in the 1960s. Kingsley’s part in YHA shows the difficulties youth hostels have also faced.
At the beginning, in 1930 youth hostels changed quickly. The organisations behind them were light and nimble. Regional councils moved so quickly and easily that by 1936, in less than five years, they had 59,000 member and 262 youth hostels where they could stay.
But that success brought challenges. By 1950 the organisation had become established, supported with government funds, by the Carnegie Trust, one of the biggest benevolent trusts in the UK, and by many others including prime ministers and journalists. Steady hands ran it and youth hostels.
Yet, within ten years things had begun to go wrong. Right from the outset many youth hostel members had been against cars. First president, the writer of popular history books and Cambridge professor, GM Trevelyan, thought cars had ruined the British countryside.
But they had not banned cars. They had only said that youth hostels were not intended for people touring by car. This gradually became a rule against and effective ban on cars.
By 1960 young people were more accepting of cars and motorised transport. They hitch hiked when they could, a practice older members frowned on. Cars were no longer just for a privileged few.
Young people were growing bitter against the thoughtless bigotry and restrictions in youth hostels, a former national secretary warned. But his warnings were ignored and an attempt to relax the rule against cars was overturned by national council, the annual meeting of members held each year to set policy.
It took until 1973 for the ban on cars to fade away and by then YHA had achieved a reputation for being old fashioned and out of touch.
Other battles also showed YHA becoming set in its ways. Despite financial difficulties caused by the regional set up, a proposal for amalgamating all YHA finances into one account was dismissed in the 60s. It took two regions to go bankrupt before that change came about in 1985.
David Kingsley was instrumental in creating that final change, encouraged by another former Labour Party member and former chairman, John Parfitt. Kingsley wrote a report that laid out the change YHA needed to make in 1984. YHA amalgamated, appointed a chief executive and employed paid managers.
Kingsley and Parfitt wanted modern clean popular hostels. In many ways it has taken until today for YHA to achieve that aim.
YHA shows that achieving change requires succession. One or two on their own cannot achieve change in an established organisation. John Parfitt and then David Kingsley were followed by chief executives, chairmen and others, right up to the current chief executive, who have continued to push change and modernisation.
As well as determination, those wanting to bring about change required a clear strategy. They have to hold onto a simple idea of what they want to achieve.
But more than anything I think I learned, from reading and writing about YHA, that as well as determination, strategy, and a long term plan, a lot of luck is needed by any organisation facing change and wanting to stay relevant.
David Cameron certainly ran out of luck when he held the referendum but I wonder if he really grasped any of the other things he needed to do to change the Conservative party. Jeremy Corbyn seems to have when he talks about the project he is embarked upon and when he talks about the next election not being as important as changing the way Labour is going.
For anyone looking to study change in organisations youth hostels make a good case. Much more about the drive to modernise youth hostels in Open to All, out this autumn.
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