UKYP parliament

Last Friday the United Kingdom’s Youth Parliament (UKYP) held its 5th annual meeting in the House of Commons to debate which issue – shortlisted from a nationwide young person’s ballot, “Make Your Mark” – they would choose to be their national campaign subject for the forthcoming year. 300 budding politicians between the ages of 11-18 kept the green benches warm for the current crop of MPs and had the opportunity to add their own –often ignored – voices to the chamber that has witnessed many a great orator.

The “Make Your Mark” ballot vote is open to all young people from across the UK and determines which five topics the UKYP will debate within the House of Commons and eventually choose two to be their national campaigns. The current dreary economic and political climate appears to have galvanised the country’s youth in to taking a stand for their future as 2013 saw a record mandate of 478,000 votes recorded – the highest ever. The five issues up for discussion were; a curriculum to prepare us for life, zero tolerance towards bullying in schools, better work experience and careers advice, combating youth unemployment and votes for 16 and 17 year olds in all public elections.

The issues that young people have chosen overwhelmingly focussed on enfranchising the youth, either in the education system or at the ballot box. Clearly the message to the political establishment from young people in the United Kingdom today is that something needs to change to stop this generation from becoming a lost one.

The first motion discussed was “A curriculum to prepare us for life” where MYP Jamie Macleod put forward the case that the current education system is not teaching young people to think, only to memorise. All the big elephants in the (class) room were discussed – how useful is it really knowing about Pythagoras or Socrates when children are leaving school without basic financial knowledge and are lacking critical skills that are essential in the workplace? The views and concerns expressed by the UKYP members contrasts with current Education Secretary Michael Gove’s plans for a fact based curriculum and a pushed focus on achieving higher standards of grades in subjects. This issue was selected last year as UKYP’s national campaign and much of the debate centred on whether it was worthwhile continuing the campaign for yet another year even though it had some success in bringing a degree of financial education in to the curriculum. Chante Joseph closed the debate stressing the importance of persistence, drawing from countless historical campaigns from the Suffragettes to the Civil Rights movement, which didn’t happen overnight.

The other campaigns that aimed to tackle the disillusionment many young people feel as they approach the end of compulsory education included a plan to ‘Combat Youth Unemployment’ and a push for ‘Better Work Experience and Careers Advice’. The members of UKYP displayed their maturity by accepting these issues had no easy answers and many put forward the case that it was not their duty to try and change the playing field and should focus on preparing young people for the outside world. One delegate summarising, ‘if the greatest economic minds cannot come up with a policy solution in years, we have no chance of doing so in the next half hour.’

During the ‘Votes at 16 debate’ a minority of giddy political wonks, eager to get their names and opinions recorded in Hansard for all eternity, began leaping out of their seats and put their PE lessons in to practice by coming up with innovative ways to attract the Speaker’s attention. Microphones swung from the ceiling and at one point the dispatch box took a real beating, but John Bercow orchestrate the afternoon and managed to strike a balance between encouraging enthusiasm and seriousness from the MYPs. Whilst Votes at 16 was the topic that drew most support from the members, it was a speech opposing the motion from 17 year-old by Gavin Fleming MYP that was delivered with such authority and quality that it prompted direct praise from The Speaker of the House himself.

After the debates had ended the MYPs made their way to the voting lobby to select which issues would be campaigned on for the next year. The final results were 217 votes in favour of ‘votes at 16’, 136 for ‘a curriculum to prepare us for life’, 115 for ‘better work experience and careers advice’, 76 for ‘combating youth and 42 for ‘zero tolerance to bullying in schools. Pushing for a curriculum reform alongside votes for young people seems to be a smart and logical choice by UKYP – inform young people more about the democratic process, and then get them involved with it to push forward change.

It was refreshing to watch the House of Commons at its most civilised it has been since the last sitting of the UKYP. There was a distinct lack of the public school boy jeering that is seen too often during Prime Minister’s Questions; there were no football crowd like whoops after every political point scored and no shaking of heads or fists from members of the house. Tempers did not fray and respect was evident all around with every point from every member receiving a round of applause. Whilst this may sound like some further encroaching political correctness ‘gone mad’, it should also remind us maybe that politics doesn’t have to be the competitive blood sport that is has become. Speaking to a number of MYPs after the debates it became more and more apparent that there was across the board agreement on principles and goals from the members, rather today showed a difference in opinion with how best to achieve such goals.

Whilst there was nothing radical on the table today, it is a positive sign to see so many young people engaging in the political system to force change – rejecting the easily consumable but ultimately empty, populist, revolutionary rhetoric which has made headlines recently courtesy of Russell Brand. John Bercow looked to the future with hope stating how the UKYP is “a much more representative group of people than, perhaps, the House of Commons usually sees.” This increasing engagement and diversity can only be a good thing for British democracy.

Whilst some of the day’s proceedings were trivial and you got the impression some MYPs were there to massage their own egos and boost their CVs, overall the UKYP sent out a clear and coherent message to the political establishment. Young people aren’t happy with their position in the UK and whilst they may not have the answers, they are beginning to do something about it.