Young people are an integral part of society. They are engaged, active and informed citizens, keen to play their part in creating a better Scotland. With age comes responsibility. As a society, we already allow our young people to marry, have children, leave school, and get a job, but also more importantly, we recently made a historical decision to allow our young people to vote on the constitutional future of Scotland in the independence referendum.
This responsibility empowered young people to become actively involved in the political process by having their say about the future of their country. This decision, and the effort afforded to encouraging young people to register to vote, resulted in mass participation from the people of Scotland, and an exceptionally high turnout of young voters.
Admittedly, voting on constitutional change is different to voting in the general election, but the underlying principles are the same. Often, young people don’t want to partake in party politics and they are more focused on issue-based politics. While many may argue this could hinder young people’s participation in the general election, I would disagree on the basis that young people actively choose to research the issues important to them and consider which party they believe best represents their views.
During the referendum campaign, the Scottish Youth Parliament engaged with over 18,000 young people and registered thousands of first time voters. As a Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament (MSYP), the opportunity to be at the forefront of one the most historic moments in Scottish history was astounding. The process gave me the opportunity to engage with young people right in the heart of their communities.
I’ve spoken with young people from all over Scotland and they all have opinions on issues ranging from immigration, the economy, and Trident, to more localised issues, such as access to opportunities for young people within their local area. Each and every one of the young people I met with were informed, engaged, full of passion, and excited about exercising their democratic right to cast their vote.
I believe it is absolutely vital that young people continue to pursue issue-based politics because this enables them to understand how their everyday lives are affected by political issues, and how the issues important to them are political topics.
Issues-based politics is fundamental to connecting with the most disenfranchised young people who would not necessarily engage with the democratic process. It opens up the opportunity for young people to explore what it feels like to be involved in politics, and for many first time voters, the experience of casting their vote provides them with the enthusiasm and passion to continue engaging with political debate, and that is what we should be aiming for as a country.
The Scottish referendum has made lasting impact on mass participation in politics. Young people were welcomed into the process with the responsibility and long overdue right to vote at the age of 16, and the enthusiasm created around this momentous occasion inspired many to become involved.
Generations of families who had never participated in an election or referendum before got involved. Many will argue over the reasons behind this, but for me this happened because of a focus on issue based politics, and an increased recognition of the impact politics has on people’s everyday lives. I believe there was a widespread acknowledgment that everyone’s opinion was valued.
Another pivotal factor during the referendum was young people’s access to unbiased information. The Scottish Youth Parliament provided a unique youth engagement programme, called ‘Aye Naw Mibbe’, which focused on providing young people with important information on how and when to register to vote, and enabled them to access impartial information on the referendum and other upcoming elections. This access to information is crucial to furthering engagement because it allows young people to make an informed choice for themselves.
When young people become actively involved, you inevitably see decision-makers direct policy changes towards them: in essence the more young people are involved, the more politicians are keen to win their vote. This is actually a good thing because it closes the gap between young people and decision-makers, and it also highlights the importance of political participation as it broadens people’s horizons and opens them up to endless opportunities.
The effort afforded across the country to facilitate a range of young people’s question time events, hustings and debates, and general engagement sessions ahead of the referendum was fantastic. I’d like to see more events like this being made available to young people on a regular basis, and in particular leading up to the General Election. Politicians need to be regularly making the effort to engage with young people through events such as those I mentioned in order to show that young people’s opinions are truly valued and this won’t be something that changes once the ballots are counted.
Young people want to be involved and we saw that throughout the referendum process. Having seized the opportunity to have their say, young people now have a need and desire to remain involved. The single most important method of encouraging young people to register to vote and utilise their vote is having conversations that help young people relate politics to their life.
We need to continue to respect young people and treat them like the young adults they are, whilst ensuring that the formality and language used does not scare them away. The right to vote comes with responsibility and young people deserve to be afforded that responsibility in all elections.
As the democratically elected voice of Scotland’s young people, the Scottish Youth Parliament has always known that 16 and 17-year-olds are capable of making informed decisions when it comes to voting, and I hope the rest of the country can see that too. We are delighted that the voting age will be lowered to 16 in time for the next Scottish Parliament elections, and we believe this will have a very positive impact on the overall levels of engagement.
I hope we can continue to encourage our young people to have their say and shape their own futures, and I am looking forward to encouraging participation in the upcoming General Election.
Terri Smith MSYP is Vice Chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament