Political diversity in Scotland: the key to getting young people involved?

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The younger generations have been consistently labelled as ‘narcissistic’, ‘lazy’ and ‘entitled’. This constant pushback of negative feedback from the media and other well-known individuals could well be the reason why the youth of today are the least likely to vote in elections, despite being an extremely political generation.

The younger generations are perhaps the most political in a long time. The most recent example being the climate strikes taking place, not just across Scotland but across the globe. Young people are taking a stand whether that be marching, school strikes or campaigning on social media; what they are doing is inherently political. Speaking about the environmental movement Johann Lamont, Labour MSP, said that there are a lot of young people who “are not doing these things in order to become an MP, they’re doing them because they care about them.” . That is the vital difference between what politics should be, and what the reality of politics is.

Youth Strike for Climate in Edinburgh
image from @WWFScotland twitter

Many of them might not even realise this what with the rigid structures of our politics and the distaste that a majority of people now have for it. Nowadays, politics is something that people groan about if it is brought up in conversation either because they don’t care about it, don’t know about it or are sick of hearing about it. That is the vital difference between what politics should be, and what the reality of politics is.

It’s not exactly a new phenomenon, that young people don’t agree with or can’t relate to politicians and policy. There has always been a delay in politics, with new ideas and opinions being formed every new generation and the older generations sticking to their ideals which are too out of touch with the newest members of society. But why haven’t we learned from this? Why do we continue to ignore the youth and plough on doing things our own way? The Scottish Parliament does a number of activities to ‘include’ young people, but school visits and guest talks are not going to cut it. What about all of the others who can’t manage school trips or never get the chance to speak to an MSP?

Admittedly, there are ways to get in touch with MSPs. They are available to email concerns, and of course Scotland now has policy which allows 16- and 17-year olds to vote in local and Scottish Parliamentary elections. But is this enough? Perhaps across the board, the Scottish government should be doing more to get people engaged and involved and make it easier to raise concerns or give suggestions. Politics is a complicated subject, and many people who haven’t had the best education or were never from a political family won’t know how to start getting to know who’s who, and what’s going on. It’s extremely intimidating trying to navigate such a touchy and difficult subject when you have next to no prior knowledge, especially given how passionate some people are about it, and how it is traditionally seen as something for people of middle class and upwards.

 When asked why there was such a distance between young people and politicians, Ross Greer, SNP MSP, said: “So, we look at the thousands of young people across Scotland, three, four thousand outside this parliament who came out on climate strikes. These are young people involved in politics. They’re taking really political action. For quite a lot of them, they’re not immediately going to think that the next step is to get involved in electoral politics. I don’t think that’s a failing of them, I think that’s a failing of our political system and to some extent our education system which doesn’t teach young people enough about how to engage in electoral politics.”

There is also the problem of accessibility to information. While official documents, decisions and information is largely shared online this does not necessarily mean that it is truly accessible. The media also have a rather large roll to play in this, as not all news outlets are trusted which means that people won’t trust the news that they print, leaving them with no real idea of what is going on. For young adults especially, this is a difficult challenge. Trying to keep up with work, studies, family and friends is hard enough without trying to decipher the never-ending bombardment of information about current affairs. One such young person, 23-year-old Eve Jarvis said she thinks “it would help if the information about each party could be broken down as simply as it can be, as it’s a lot to take in.”

Improvements can certainly be made in order to gain the interest of younger generations through methods that they are more comfortable with. When asked about what she would like to see done to make Scottish politics more interesting and accessible for young people, Eve continued on to say that she would be “more interested in politics if there wasn’t such a disconnect with young culture and politicians. I would like if they could have more engagement on social media.” Social media is a huge advantage in this regard, giving politicians and other public figures the chance to engage with young people and giving people a voice who might not have without the medium of social media. Politicians are there to serve the public, to represent them, and therefore they should be the ones going to the publics level rather than the other way around. This, of course, doesn’t just go for young people but for any group who cannot engage in politics in the ‘usual’ way, whether that be because they’re housebound or perhaps have a debilitating mental or physical illness.

However, Johann had a different perspective on the usefulness of social media: “I think part of the problem in modern politics is particularly social media. You follow the people you agree with and they follow you because they agree with you and you kind of spend your time rigorously agreeing with each other excluding the people you don’t agree with. I think there’s a very exclusionary tone to all our politics now.”

There is no denying that in some regards, the Scottish Parliament has done extremely well. However, in others it is unfortunately lagging behind. Johann mentioned that she thinks the Scottish Parliament “has pretty spectacularly failed round black and minority ethnic groups.”

The Chamber in the Scottish Parliament

Ross Greer reiterated the failure of the parliament. When asked if he thought the Scottish Parliament was diverse enough, he stated the opinion that “our politics should look like the society it’s supposed to represent.” He then continued, saying: “That’s clearly not the case when only a third of MSPs are women, when far fewer than that in terms of councillors are women. I think it’s less than one in four councillors are women. There have only ever been four MSPs from minority ethnic backgrounds, they have all been men so we have never had a woman of colour elected to this parliament. There are only a couple of us who are under the age of 30 in this Parliament. There are almost no councillors under the age of 30.”

Ross Greer, an SNP MSP, is the youngest MSP to have ever been elected, being only 21 years old when he was first elected in 2016. On a more positive note, speaking of his own election to parliament he said he believes that “as much as there are areas that we have made progress in and made history in so, Mhairi Black being the youngest MP, myself being the youngest MSP. That proves that it’s possible, that politics is not an impenetrable fortress that is overwhelmingly dominated by old, white, privileged, straight men but we have a very long way to go.”

The issue with requesting more diversity is that it could potentially become a situation where people from minority backgrounds are chosen for jobs, or elected, based simply on the fact that they are a minority. The trouble with this being the reason is that the best people are then not always chosen for the job.

Other countries have a much more diverse government, which is clearly a huge benefit to them. Obviously, no government is perfect, and it is pretty much impossible that there will ever be a government that is perfect for everyone but that doesn’t mean that we should stop pushing for better. Countries such as Australia and even the United States has a more diverse government than Scotland at the moment, despite its increasingly worrying troubles with Trump.  Australia is often lauded by political leaders and commentators as one of the ‘most successful and harmonious multicultural nations of the world’. Even America, with all of the Trump troubles, has had a drop in the proportion of white men within the Democratic congress, going from 41% to 38%.

A recent report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission has revealed that only 29% of all councillors are women, compared to 51% of Scotland’s population. The study found that data about levels of representation in membership, approved lists of candidates, candidates for selection and candidates for election is not routinely collected by political parties. This makes it impossible to know whether other protected characteristic groups, such as disability, are underrepresented, the EHRC report said.

So perhaps the most logical way to start combating this problem is to begin at a local level. If we improve diversity for local councils then we can work our way up to solving the problem overall. The most important step in this journey is to ensure that we do this in a way that doesn’t give minorities ‘special’ chances, we just have to make sure that they have the same chance and encouragement as everyone else. Equality doesn’t just mean that everyone has the same set of laws, it means that every person is considered the same, given the same support and the same opportunities.

So how does this affect young people? Ross Greer thinks that “it’s quite clear from all the evidence that we have got that having role models in whatever the field is, helps people get into it. So, whether that’s trying to get more women into engineering or more young people into politics, we know that having those examples in there is very, very helpful. I have met young people who have said that after seeing myself or Mhairi Black they have decided that politics was something for them and they have joined a party.”

 Young adults these days want real change. Not to say that older people don’t, but as a generation these younger people want to make a real, true difference and have no issue with going against tradition. As mentioned before, look at the climate strikes. The lack of tolerance for abusers in any industry, no matter how powerful they may be. This generation wants to change things for the better and they’re not scared to shout about it. So maybe its time that the people in charge listened, really listened. Their voices should be heard and considered because that is how to be truly progressive, by listening to young people because they are going to be the ones who bring the change about. Rather than stepping aside and letting things happen at a slower rate people should be doing something now and getting what’s actually important done.

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