Young people and politics, according to Westminster's youngest MPs
The youngest MPs in each major party talk about whether UK politics is working for young people.
Are young people today isolated from UK politics? Are the workings of Westminster for the older generations, or is parliament throwing open its doors?
Who better to ask than the youngest MP in each major party...
Jack Brereton, Conservative MP for Stoke on Trent South
Brereton is the youngest MP of the 2017 intake and says the place “does certainly feel energised and refreshed”. He wants to see greater diversity in politics and in Westminster and beyond. "That doesn’t just go for young and old but also more women and ethnic minorities in parliament and at a local level as well. We need to see a wider range of people coming forward from different backgrounds.”
Brereton insists this is stirring in his own party, which is known for having an ageing membership: "The Conservative party does push young people forward and they have real opportunities to do some of the key roles within our party. We do have a whole wealth of talent that is coming forward.”
Brereton agrees that more needs to be done by the Conservatives to engage younger voters, but he is hopeful about the party’s potential to undergo a regeneration: "We certainly have lots of lessons to learn from the general election but that presents us with opportunities to build a stronger party that is reaching out more effectively to younger people. I think there are real opportunities there. Those lessons are hitting home in central office. There’s an important recognition of the need to prepare us for the next general election with them in mind."
Unlike many younger people, Brereton backed Brexit. He claims he saw a different side to the EU referendum, one where Brexit isn’t perceived as a future taken away from Britain’s youth against their will.
“Brexit didn’t necessarily just divide young and old. In my constituency, lots of young people were very much supporting the Leave campaign because of the opportunities it could bring. There were young people who were saying to me just as enthusiastically as pensioners that they voted leave because they wanted to see a change.”
The only one out of the five MPs to not be on Twitter, Brereton says that he finds Facebook and Instagram to be a more effective medium of communication with his constituents.
Danielle Rowley, 28, Labour MP for Midlothian
Rowley is another new intake from the 2017 snap election. She says she really has been pleasantly surprised by how welcoming everyone has been and how older members are excited to have new fresh faces in parliament: “People are really keen to hear from younger voices.”
As well as being the youngest Labour MP, she’s also the first woman to represent her constituency. She champions the importance of a mixed bag in parliament, and sees the dominance of aging males as a democratic issue: “If you’re only representing one group and it’s a group that are already massively over represented then how can you be working for all of society? And how can you be standing up for those who don’t have a voice if you don’t have those voices in your party?”
Rowley grew up with political influence from both sides of her family. Her father is Alex Rowley, former deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party and her mother was a trade unionist. She was a member of Scottish Youth Parliament when she was in secondary school, as well as being on her pupil council.
When asked what she’d say directly to young people, she says: “If there’s something that you’re passionate about, no matter what it is, politics will relate to it somehow. Getting involved in politics is just a vehicle to change the world around you and change people’s lives for the better.”
Rowley goes on to say that young people should get in touch with their local MP if there’s a campaign or issue they want to get involved with. “I recognise politics can be quite a daunting thing that seems alien so I’m really keen to do whatever I can to make politics more relatable to young people…and everyone really.”
Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon
Moran gained her seat from junior health minister Nicola Blackwood in last year’s election. She believes the country is letting young people down in a lot of ways, most notably when it comes to educational inequality, and the rise of mental health issues in young people.
“So many people in the house of parliament who have been ministers are wedded to these old ways of doing things and it’s very hard for them to recognise that a lot of what the government does is harmful.”
She says she does not see the point in writing legislation if you don’t have one eye on the next generation. For Moran, the upside of the EU referendum was that Brexit pushed young people to engage, the result being the rise of younger votes, particularly for Labour, at the last general election.
“Jeremey Corbyn represented hope and I think there’s a lesson for all political parties: young people want to hear that hope narrative and if we’re going to engage with them we all need to take that on board.”
Moran is the first MP of Palestinian descent, also making her the first ethnic minority woman who is a Liberal Democrat, as well the youngest in the party. She says: “I think it’s kind of ridiculous that at 35 I am one of the youngest MPs. That’s just crazy. I look around the chamber and it doesn’t look like society, and it definitely doesn’t behave like society. A lot of it is very confrontational and quite male dominated in the way people interact with each other. That behaviour wouldn’t be acceptable to most people under the age of 45.”
Moran says that sexual harassment is a good example of the new generation’s different outlook on the world. Her message to younger voters is: “Please come join us, we need your voice! Don’t underestimate the importance of just having the perspective that you have and being a part of this incredible generation.”
Ben Lake, Plaid Cymru MP for Ceredigion
The party’s youngest ever MP and the youngest one in Wales, Lake decided to stand in 2017 after the EU referendum, thinking: “I’m arguing, complaining and moaning from the side-lines enough, if it really means that much to me why I don’t just put my money where my mouth is and stand for myself?”
Lake studied Politics and History at Oxford. He then became a researcher for National Assembly for Wales. He says he empathises with young people who feel isolated from the political sphere following Brexit, but the most important thing is that they shouldn’t give up.
“The pendulum swings back and forth. It may seem quite dark at the moment but you have to keep up the struggle and make the positive case. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to change things. Life’s not about giving up, why should it be in politics as well.”
Lake calls the overrepresentation of the older generation in Westminster a serious problem: “If parliament isn’t representative of the people, then democracy is in a very perilous position.”
But last year’s arrival of a few new MPs in their 20s has shaken things up. Lake says: “What has been striking in this parliament is that there’s a real fresh perspective. Things that have perhaps previously gone unchallenged and unquestioned are now being scrutinised again.”
One “bug bear” of Lake’s in Westminster is the amount of time it takes to vote in the House of Commons. The current procedure is that members indicate that they are for or against by walking up one side of the lobby or the other. Lake has suggested electronically swiping their ID cards as an alternative and more efficient way to count them in.
Mhairi Black, SNP MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South
Black was drawn into politics after being on the losing side of the Scottish Independence Campaign in 2014. She remembers thinking when they lost “I didn’t give up all of my social life for the last two years to be told to get back in my box” so that’s when she decided to put her name forward as a candidate and “see how far I got”.
She ran in 2015 at the age of 20 and while she was in her final year at Glasgow University, and was re-elected again last year.
The Baby of the House and the youngest MP since the nineteenth century, Black has made it clear on a number of occasionas that does not feel at home in Westminster:
"I despise the procedures of this parliament, not because they’re traditional or because they’re fancy or a bit daft, but because they take up a ridiculous amount of time.” She also cites the process of members voting as the biggest time-waster," she says. "Parliament is definitely turning away ordinary folk because I’m already wanting to tear my hair out at times and I like to think I’m quite patient."
Black feels a fresh perspective has been sorely needed: “I will say things that in my head are ridiculously simple but the older folk will go ‘Oh my god that’s genius, why didn’t we think of that?’”
She has had to adjust to feeling out of place because of the age gap between herself and her colleagues: “It took me a long time to stop second guessing myself. Before I was sitting in the corner and thinking I should let the actual adults deal with it, but as time went on I thought ‘No, I am actually talking sense here’. It’s because Westminster is created in such a way that it is a bubble, it’s a world unto itself.”
Black says the one message to get across to young people is that politics is not something you’re born into or that you can only get involved with if you have a first-class degree from a top university: “That’s nonsense. That is what’s wrong with politics.”
Despite her impatience with the current state of affairs, Black is hopeful about where UK politics is heading: “I can’t think of any other point in parliamentary history where there’s been such an intake of really ordinary people. You can see that the atmosphere in the chamber is slowly changing, so I think young folk have made an impact. But it’s got a long way to go.”