Hard times for the elfins

Observations on progressive youth

You would have thought that the Woodcraft Folk would be right up the street of a Labour government: a small youth movement (20,000 members), first formed in 1925 as a non-militaristic alternative to the Boy Scouts, it stands for "co-operation, equality, democracy and peace". Much loved by the north London chattering classes, but also strong in parts of the north, it is all for "caring and sharing", singing and dancing, and also stoutly opposes "sloth and greed". What's more, 2005, in case you didn't know, is the year of the volunteer.

So why has this apparently blameless body had its annual funding of £52,000 cut off by the minister for children, Margaret Hodge? In a curt letter, it was told that "it does not represent good value for money". As Jo Tilley-Riley, a voluntary leader in inner-city Manchester, says: "The government talks about wanting to encourage children from a broad range of backgrounds, but it seems intent on suppressing them."

Where did the Woodcraft Folk's elfins, pioneers and venturers (as its various age groups are known) go wrong? Some of the organisation's leaders wonder if their opposition to the war in Iraq (the Stop the War Coalition claimed them as an affiliated body) is behind the decision.

Or did Hodge go rooting in the newspaper archives? A 1999 Guardian article by Angela Phillips, who had been to camps run by the Woodcraft Folk and another similarly minded body, may contain the vital clue. "If you want your offspring to grow up to be new Labour spin-doctors," Phillips advised, "don't even think about it. At these camps, they will learn democracy of the most old-fashioned kind." When the paper's photographer turned up to take some pictures, the matter was put to a vote. He went away empty-handed.

"How's that for a media strategy?" asked Phillips.