Engaging with politics can lead to positive changes
Politics is all around us. From the price you pay at the petrol pump to the frequency your rubbish is collected, politics touches all aspects of our lives. And yet for some this permeation is unseen, or worse, dismissed as an irrelevancy, and so they detach from the political processes that bear such influence over their daily lives.
However, politics can, as this year’s Festival of Politics will explore, be a force for positive change.
One strong example of this has been the Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP) which has been working to engage, empower and involve young people in decision-making processes.
The youth parliament is about politics with a small ‘p’, explains SYP chair Grant Costello, describing it as an opportunity for young people to come together to discuss the issues they care about and ensure their voices are heard. While in the past he says some have dismissed it as a “talking shop” for privileged young people, recent high profile campaigns such as its campaign for marriage equality, which was recently named ‘Campaign of the Year’ at the annual Scottish charity awards, have demonstrated that by working together young people can make a profound difference.
The positive impact of its work extends beyond the policies it influences, however. A new report published by the Youth Parliament looked into its impact on former members and found the young parliamentarians also felt the benefits. Former MSYPs, who the report shows come from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, are “overwhelmingly positive” about the impact the SYP has had on them and recognise the personal and social skills they have acquired along the way, such as public speaking and debating, networking, leadership, confidence and empathy. The report shows that 83 per cent of former MSYPs are currently in further or higher education, while 91 per cent are either currently employed or have been employed since leaving the SYP, with high profile former members including serving MP Pamela Nash and John Loughton, a former Big Brother winner who went on to found the international development company, dare2lead.
Costello says that being involved in the youth parliament has also shown him that he isn’t alone in his passion for politics.
“The organisation started off about 12 years ago now and it was just a group of young people and a group of youth workers who wanted to make a difference. At the last elections we had 85,000 young people vote, so I think it shows its evolution and that when young people can have a medium like the Scottish Youth Parliament, and like the Scottish Parliament, which is more easily accessibly to us in Scotland, when we have that medium to try and get our opinions noted and our ideas put forward, we are wiling to do it and get involved.” During the packed Festival of Politics programme a full day has been given over to young people, which will see them take over the floor of the Debating Chamber to question and contest issues they care about. Costello welcomes the decision and says it symbolises the need to ensure young people are represented at the heart of Parliament.
“Young people make up a massive amount of our nation and the Parliament is meant to be not just working towards the present, but working towards the future and building the future that we as young people want to see. If they are not being active enough, and they are not involving us in their consultations and their decision making, how can they possibly know what future we want?” All young people want is an equal say in determining that future, he explains, highlighting the youth parliament’s “vital” campaign to see the franchise extended to include 16 and 17 year-olds.
“To try and get young people involved in politics is not the easiest thing in the world. It is hard to explain to a young person that they can go and do all these things and get involved in the SYP, yet when it comes down to it, when they really want to have their say, which comes at the ballot box, they are denied that right. Even though we can pay taxes, we can join the army, we can get married, have a kid. It is a simple denial of our right. If politicians truly want to get young people involved the easiest and most basic way is to give young people votes at 16.” And there is no better time than the present.
The independence question is the biggest decision we will ever make in our lives, says Costello, and young people want to be part of it. The SNP has also expressed its support for lowering the voting age in time for participation in the 2014 referendum. However, for Costello this is bigger than purely the independence question.
“Regardless of how that goes, yes or no, Westminster elections will quickly follow after that, then local council elections, then Scottish Parliament elections, or an Independent Scottish Parliament election. So as of 2014, the next four years will see elections that will completely change the course of a young person’s life for the next ten years and by simply denying a young person the right to have their say in that is crazy to me.” The SYP’s report found that 73 per cent of former MSYPs felt their knowledge and understanding of political processes and systems has increased following their time as an MSYP and 96 per cent of eligible former MSYPs have voted in General Elections, demonstrating that early engagement can have a lasting effect.
However, while enthusing the next generation of voters is clearly important for political participation, further work is required to stop others disengaging or feeling disconnected from politics.
An opinion poll commissioned by Age Scotland earlier this year found that while 96 per cent of over 50s say they are likely to vote in the upcoming referendum, less than half felt suitably informed about the surrounding issues. The poll also found that older people have lost complete trust in politicians with only 11 per cent of older voters saying they trust them. This reported disintegration of faith in our decision-makers is all the more concerning given the broad range of issues currently under consideration that will directly impact on the lives of older people.
Agnes McGroarty chairs the Scottish Seniors Alliance, an umbrella body for local senior forums across Scotland, which she says was formed because older people felt “things were being discussed about us, without us.” She also chairs the steering group for the Scottish Older People’s Assembly, an annual conference organised by older people, for older people that this year will be centred around care and caring.
While the Assembly provides a valued focus point and is in itself a strong public statement about the importance of older people’s issues, McGroarty says many older people feel the assemblies are merely “talking shops”, and, as such, the Scottish Seniors Alliance is amongst the voices calling for a National Seniors’ Parliament.
“We want to see this happen because older people want it, because a lot of them feel that they are not being listened to,” she says.
“We feel the way forward is for a Senior’s Parliament where we can express our opinions and put forth our demands.” Previous assemblies have clearly demonstrated that there are plenty of older people who are not shy about speaking out on the issues they care about. However, others may need more encouragement and support to come forward.
As part of its engagement work the Scottish Women’s Convention runs a series of road shows across the country to gather grassroots responses on areas of policy with a gender perspective.
Earlier this year they also held a conference ahead of the local government elections to emphasise the importance of women using their vote.
“We had a discussion around why women don’t get involved in politics per se,” says Evelyn Fraser, development manager, Scottish Women’s Convention.
“From our road shows we know that women were saying politics doesn’t affect me. We try to take it down into individual areas that affect women’s lives, whether it be education, health, housing, transport, and say it does. But they still sometimes think they can’t make a difference. So it is trying to empower women to see that they have something meaningful to say and that they can make a difference.” However, those who do wish to become more directly involved at a local level may find barriers in their way.
“Some of the barriers for women who have been involved at that level are that the meetings aren’t held at a convenient time for women.
There is maybe a lack of transport to get to meetings and there is also the childcare issue,” says Fraser, adding that these barriers only get greater when you move to national politics.
Women are fighting to break down some of these barriers, but she says they shouldn’t have to do so on their own.
“We had a Glasgow councillor at our conference who spoke about being a young female councillor with a young child and she said it was very difficult. She had to break down barriers asking for childcare, or take her child along to meetings.
But she said unless you have that confidence it is very difficult to break that down.
“So there needs to be some sort of mechanism to support women so they can become involved and it shouldn’t be them that is having to push all the time to become involved.” As the Scottish Parliament’s first female Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick has herself helped to forge new ground for women’s involvement in politics. She recognises that challenges remain but is characteristically determined to see Scotland’s Parliament go further still in its efforts to connect and engage with those it represents.
“I think it is very difficult to engage with individuals and communities and with people that feel alienated. We have tried as a Parliament over the years and if you look at the petitions committee which is trumpeted as a great success but the people that are engaging with it are generally middle aged men not the groups we need to engage with,” Marwick told Holyrood editor Mandy Rhodes in a recent interview.
However, she adds that the responsibility does not solely lie with the Parliament. She points to strong educational programmes and events such as the Festival of Politics and the ‘It’s your Parliament’ event, which help bring groups of people from all over Scotland together, including those who would not normally engage with the parliament, and helps them to understand what goes on within its walls. But we need to do more and we need to work together to do it.
“It’s up to all politicians,” she says, “up to everybody to try and bring these groups together.”