October 21st, 2016

The young are ready to serve

By Angela Crawley – MP for Lanark and Hamilton East, United Kingdom

The young are ready to serve

The traditional image of a politician in the UK is a grey haired man in a grey suit, distinguishable only by the colour of his tie; this idea persists in legislatures across the world.

Men have typically dominated the institutions of power for generations. For decades, the older statesman was, indeed, the only statesman.

In contrast, I believe parliament should be representative of the entire country – not only geographically, but demographically, allowing for a balance of gender, sexuality, race, socioeconomic background and age. While our legislatures are still predominantly made up of middle-class, privately educated men, things are changing.

The parliament in which I sit is the most ethnically diverse, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender inclusive and female-friendly the UK has ever had. However, at the 2015 parliamentary election in the UK 13 members were elected under the age of 30, including myself at 28, which was a drop from the 15 members in that age group elected in 2010.

When I began in politics I responded to what I saw around me: the poverty and inequality I observed in my home town of Hamilton, across Scotland, and in the world at large. I felt that the established order was failing people and I wanted to make a change. I felt that I did not have time to waste as people were suffering from government decisions. I had a voice that could make a change, and my age was not really a factor in my decision to go into politics. As a student, I worked for members of the Scottish Parliament. This gave me the confidence to put myself forward, regardless of what anyone may have thought of me based on my age.

By the time I became a local councillor in Hamilton at the age of 24, I had already come up against many of the challenges that face a young politician. I spent a lot of my early years as a councillor proving to older colleagues that a young woman was just as capable of wrapping her head around the issues faced by South Lanarkshire Council – the county in which I grew up, and which I now represent in parliament – as any of them.

Not only did I quickly develop a tough skin when it came to political discussions, but I also had to have the courage of my convictions when arguing for the needs of my constituents.

Being a young politician involves challenging the assumptions and prejudices of people who believe that you are not up to the job, simply because of your age. It is assumed that young people have very little experience and few ideas of benefit. This is simply not true. I spent a long time working closely with politicians and studying the issues I speak about. Having a strong focus and will has nothing to do with age.

The only way we can ensure future parliaments are more representative of the population is to make sure that gender, race, sexual orientation or socioeconomic background are never a barrier to anyone standing for elected office. However, I do not believe that being young or old makes people better representatives of their communities. Anyone can represent anyone, so long as they listen, engage and reflect. Being a good MP is about representation, and we should celebrate our diversity.

Young people deserve to have their voices heard loudly and clearly. It is time all institutions of power recognise the value that young people can bring to elected office. We may be young, but we are engaged, and our eyes are wide open to the challenges and the much needed changes that can be made.

© The Commonwealth