They were making history

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YHA made history in Cardiff in July. It stopped being the representative democracy, like parliament, that it has always been.

Former MP, cabinet member and YHA president, Richard Caborn, recognised the moment and praised YHA for the way it had embraced change.

Caborn, speaking at YHA’s annual  general meeting in Cardiff, the first such meeting open to all its members, said the organisation was a model of change for the voluntary sector.

In one generation YHA has gone from being a democratic organisation entirely run by volunteers to being thoroughly professional.

Caroline White, YHA’s chief executive, emphasised it remains dedicated to helping all with an aim of promoting health, recreation and education, especially for young people.

Professionals run youth hostels at every level but volunteers are still active in running youth hostelsVolunteers on YHA’s board of trustees still oversee the organisation.  Each year, members elect trustees who hold professional staff to account and guide the organisation’s policy.

Until this month YHA has followed a path of representative democracy. Members elected other members to run youth hostels through regional councils and to represent them each year at a national council.

After the heady post war years YHA grew and grew. It seemed nothing could go wrong until in the 1960s it became clear that fewer and fewer members were taking part in the system. A small group was running the organisation for the rest of its members.

Youth hostels had become a commodity. Many people enjoyed them. They stayed a night or two, had a summer holiday and never came back. As few as 4% of members were taking part in YHA’s democracy.

A large property owning business, modern society, conflicting demands from customers and an increasingly professional workforce trapped the voluntary nature of YHA. Led by farsighted volunteers, the organisation turned to professionals. YHA hired its first chief executive and launched its first marketing plan in the mid 80s.

It was not alone. Other voluntary organisations, charities and political parties faced a similar challenge.

Change has been long, slow and difficult, for others too. The labour party struggles with its representative democracy and many members oppose the majority of MPs. Even parliamentary democracy, the pinnacle of representative decision making, flounders, as populism rises. The Brexit vote has shown that.

YHA has been on a long journey. It is a model of change for others in the voluntary sector and one relevant even to the wider society from which it springs.

This episode has been a reminder that history doesn’t stand still and that writing history is a tenuous pursuit.  When I finished Open to all, this meeting was being planned. I could say that it would happen. It’s now tempting to rewrite the book taking into account this event…  But I won’t. Modernisation is one of the strands of the youth hostel story that has always fascinated me and which led me to writing about youth hostels in Open to all, how youth hostels changed the world.

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