John McNally, Member of Parliament for Falkirk discusses the importance of encouraging young people to engage in the political process.
One of my favourite quotes is ‘Get busy in your own small corner and you can change the world’. It’s deceptively simple – but to me this is the essence of politics. The actions of an individual can lead to big changes in the wider community.
When you are young it’s easy to feel as though your opinions do not matter and that no one will listen even if you do speak out. Yet the truth is that young people are the lifeblood of change and we must connect with them and let them know that politics is about their lives and their future.
In Scotland we have led the way by introducing the voting age of 16. This has proven that the best way for young people to learn about politics is to get involved. Removing the age barrier has been a fundamental step towards this goal. Votes at 16 not only encourages young people to engage in the issues that interest them but it boosts their confidence in voicing their concerns and identifying a political party they can identify with. School debates have been a great way to tap into this.
I feel we could also set up a platform targeted at voters in their twenties to engage in a national conversation. And we should make it clear that anyone who wishes to, can participate in and attend youth parliaments or visit the Scottish Parliament or Westminster. Many schools do this already with great results. I have encouraged my younger constituents to visit me at the UK parliament. These places can seem remote and irrelevant to teenagers but I have seen how engaged and inspired they are on visits to see where the big decisions are made.
In Westminster, I recently I met a group of youngsters from Edinburgh University for a question and answer session where they voiced their deep and well thought out concerns on climate change. Young people of all backgrounds are passionate about how the world should be run – they just need a positive and encouraging environment in which to express themselves.
This process should be started in their own backyard in community groups and volunteer services. My nine-year-old niece has just been voted on her school’s pupil council. At that young age, she and her young friends are getting a taste of having their ideas put into action. Suddenly she’s working for her classmates. Putting their ideas together so that school life can be even better.
Her big sister volunteers at her local Brownies group. Again she’s reaching out to the community. And in doing that she learns about leading younger children while working as a team and dealing with the public.
Small steps leading forward.
As an MP, my office brings in young interns and work experience kids from schools to let them get a taste of politics at a local level. We work towards making contact with support groups and they will be exposed to this too. From WASPI, the incredible organisation that is supporting women through changes to their pension rights to those fighting social injustice and pro-environmental campaigners.
There is an army of volunteers I have come to know through chairing two Environmental Audit Committee APPGs and these people, through going on publicised ‘nurdle hunts’ and finding plastics on our beaches, have highlighted the importance of cleaning up the environment. Many youngsters are in their ranks. Their dedication has helped lead to the UK Government banning microbeads and some of the biggest companies in the world now reviewing the plastics they use in their products. This is people power at its best.
In my former life, long before coming to the political world, I was a young hairdresser in my hometown of Denny and had a business there for fifty years. I had not been a huge fan of school so I was best suited to getting out into the world and making things happen. I experienced then the value of being part of a community and this led me towards a future in politics.
The challenge comes in helping youngsters from deprived backgrounds see that there is a way forward and that their voices count, no matter if they have a lack of confidence. I would appeal to anyone working in politics, from a local to national level, to reach out. Get school kids helping in the office. Go into schools yourself, give a talk on politics and find out what the kids are passionate about. It’s time we old folk in suits bridged the gap. Our teenagers will do the rest.