Clammy, nervous fingers paw at systematically prepared, written and memorised notes; hoping beyond hope that words will not be swept away in an irrepressible rush of blood.
Nerves and noise propel them into the stratosphere of the Chamber, falling, landing, waiting. The finger of democracy points at them, it is their chance; their opportunity to have a voice.
Eyes and cameras swivel toward the selected, stranded in an endless sea of suits and ties, no turning back now.
Tentative words escape in a bluster, never has a room felt so big, never an audience felt so large.
Butterflies calm, the stage is set. Passion submerges fear; this may be the only opportunity they have to make a mark.
Speech over. Applause seems to swirl around ears numbed by adrenaline. The green bench reaches up to cradle them back to safety. A voice heard; a voice counted.
Sat in the privileged position of the House of Commons Press Gallery yesterday, I witnessed this emotionally tumultuous process unfold. Over 300 young people placed in the House of Commons, a place of such gravity and history, provided a spectacular event, and I could not help but be immensely impressed with the performance of all involved.
From the debate leads- whose speeches lit up the chamber with flair, enthusiasm and humour- to those who stood from the backbenches and overcame a whirlwind of emotions, the contributions of all were a credit to our democracy.
The issues debated were not trifling topics either; they hold immense importance within the everyday lives of young people, young people who are increasingly getting a raw deal in society. Indeed, the UKYP debate topics, although not all chosen as national campaigns of course, highlighted a range of crucial changes which need to be fulfilled:
A Curriculum to Prepare us for Life
Firstly, a curriculum integrated with effective financial, political, cultural and sexual education is vital to ensure that young people are able to cope with the pressures of a modern, multicultural, instant information society. There is a great need for academic education to be balanced with life education, a responsibility schools must undertake.
Zero Tolerance towards Bullying in Schools
Moreover, although bullying is a perpetual problem, it continues to increase in severity. Schools and society as a whole therefore need to understand the complexities of cyber bullying in particular, and the problems it can cause. We have already seen the devastating effects of online bullying so far this year; putting an immediate plan in place is imperative to ensure we prevent any more potentially devastating consequences.
Combating Youth Unemployment
Youth unemployment, another issue debated yesterday, currently stands at 21%, as a result we risk creating a lost generation through the mistakes of others. Young people who are talented, well qualified and motivated are struggling to find work, and they are suffering the consequences. We cannot continue to expect young people to place their trust our beloved system when this is the case. This is a system which pushes them year after year towards exam after exam, and then tells them that this is not enough; that they must also gain work experience and ‘enhance their CV’ in a number of other ways to satisfy prospective employers. Young people will not place their faith in this system when they know these prospective employers simply do not exist.
Better Work Experience and Careers Advice
Young people will not place their faith in a system which promises them a ripe apple and then gives them a rotten one. This is also the case with work experience. As I have already illustrated, young people are encouraged to undertake work experience to acquire the skills of the workplace, to help them develop as individuals and possibly even to inspire a future career. No future career will be inspired by making cups of tea or filing paper. Monotony and drudgery may well be involved in adult work, but subjecting young people to it during their Year 10 work experience is not going to create the motivated, inspired workers we need to rectify the structural problems we face in our economy.
However, despite the profoundly pressing nature of these debates, it was the UKYP’s decision to vote as a national campaign their fifth debate topic, votes for 16 and 17 year olds in all public elections, which left me somewhat disillusioned with the ultimate result of the debates.
Votes at 16 received 217 votes, becoming one of the UK Youth Parliament’s campaigns this year, alongside a ‘Curriculum to Prepare us for Life’, which received 136 votes. True, votes at 16 is a topical issue thanks to the Scottish referendum and the Labour Party Conference, and, if implemented, a greater input into the democratic process from young people seems to logically suggest that politicians would feel the need to design policies to resolve the problems previously mentioned.
Unfortunately however, I cannot see this being the case. Turnout of the 18-24 age bracket at the last general election was 44%, in comparison to 73% of 55-64s and 76% of the 65+ age range. Undoubtedly, in the case of 16-18 years olds, turnout would be even lower than 44%. Politicians do not pander to the views of those who do not vote; the retirement generation rather than the lost generation would therefore continue to focus our leaders' attention.
Underlying all this is a debate which provided one of the key points of contention in the Commons yesterday; whether young people are engaged in politics or not. We heard members such as our very own writer Jake Pitt pronounce that “young people aren’t stupid,” and yes, I completely agree with the sentiment, but they do not know about politics.
In repost, I am sure many will suggest that through the UKYP’s second campaign for a curriculum for life, political education will be introduced in schools, thus ensuring that young people have enough political awareness to vote. However, from what I deduced yesterday, it does not seem as though Michael Gove will drop his cold-shouldered approach and implement widespread political education across the country tomorrow. Indeed, in an interview with UKYP member Fred Gill, we were told that it will most probably take a change in government for this to be the case.
Young people need to know about politics, its complexities and implications to feel inclined to vote, and also to make an informed decision about who to vote for. This is simply not the case currently.
Another assertion which also circulated the Chamber yesterday suggested that because members of the UK Youth Parliament are so engaged in the political process, this shows other young people are too. This is false. Rather, what the result of the debate seemed to show was that the members of the UK Youth Parliament, because they are engaged in politics, voted through a campaign for their own benefit rather than the benefit of most young people. It may be highlighted that votes at 16 was the top issue voted for on the Make Your Mark ballots, but when less than 40% of 16 and 17 year olds would use the vote if provided to them, is the Youth Parliament truly standing up for something all young people believe in?
You may think these accusations are harsh, and they probably are, after all I am a firm believer in votes at 16, just as long as political education precedes it. So think of this as a challenge, UK Youth Parliament members, to prove me wrong. Carry on with your Curriculum for Life campaign, challenge Michael Gove and defeat his stubborn shunning; implement political education throughout the nation. Then we may have an informed, active young electorate who may challenge the status quo through votes at 16.
If you do this, you may just fulfill Matthew Otubu’s aim, and have a campaign worthy of a Wikipedia page.
By Sam Bright