With the general election just around the corner, there’s been no shortage of media attention around the proposed party leaders’ TV debates. Whether it’s been the argument over who should be involved or the Prime Minister being labelled as ‘feart’ for not wanting to take part, the debates have somehow managed, even in their possible absence, to spark public interest in dusty old Westminster politics.
Meanwhile, young people have been bombarded from all directions with contradictory messages on who they should vote for, who they definitely shouldn’t vote for and even whether they should bother voting at all.
As a result, politicsandthat has organised our own leader’s debate, with the top figures from each of the main political parties in Scotland giving their own views on voting, young people and what their party has to offer young voters. This is the our Scottish Leader’s Debate.
There’s been a lot of media either telling young people not to vote or to engage with politics in a different way. Probably the most famous example of that would be with Russell Brand. What do you make of that kind of approach?
Well, I think Russell Brand is wrong. I think everybody should vote because if you don’t vote, you don’t influence things and politics just goes on; governments get elected but you just don’t have any say. I think young people demonstrated in the referendum campaign that when they have an issue that really matters and one that they care about, they come out and they vote and they get really engaged.
I think the main reason that people don’t engage is because they don’t think that there’s a genuine choice. If you look at it in a UK-wide context and have a look at Labour, the Tories, the Liberals; you could be forgiven for thinking ‘what’s the difference?’ That’s why I think in this election where there is much more doubt, people have a genuine choice. The polls suggest that there’s no certainty yet on who will win so really every vote makes a difference.
Speaking to students, it seems like a lot of young people are really calling out for any of the mainstream parties to really represent them. Why do you think the SNP are the party to do that?
I think we are that party but it will take a lot more than just me saying that convince people. If you go back to the days before the referendum, we were the party that said 16 and 17-year-olds should have the vote. We’ve trusted young people even when others shouted us down.
We’re the party who stood up for free university tuition fees and we’ve been consistent in our opposition of charging people to go to university. Labour has said from time to time that they are against tuition fees but at every opportunity they voted for them. So yeah, I think we are a party that stands up for young people and crucially, gives young people a voice.
In terms of policy, what would the SNP look to offer young people?
Well as I say, we have stood up for free tuition and we are the party that stands very strongly for public services in public hands. We are a party that believes that education should be available for everybody, not just at university but at every single stage. We’re a party that absolutely believes that our young people are as good as young people in any other country and that’s where our support for Scotland being an independent country stems from. It’s a mix of trust and confidence in our young people with strong policies to help give people the best start in life.
I wanted to ask you about funding to further education because I know that’s been a bit of a contentious issue for the SNP. According to Colleges Scotland, numbers at Scottish colleges last year had fallen by more than 100,000 from three years previous. There have also been reports of serious drops in university places. How would you respond to the suggestion that a vote for the SNP in Westminster could potentially be a vote to put further education in Scotland even further on the backburner?
I’d totally disagree with that and for each one of these figures, I’d say that there are more school leavers from deprived areas going to university than when we came to office. In terms of deprived communities and working class communities, like the one I grew up in, it’s not gone far enough but that number has increased.
We have reformed the college sector and we’ve focused it much more on allowing young people to get qualifications that equip them for the job market. There are more people now coming out with good qualifications than was the case previously and I think that’s important. So I would take absolutely the opposite view. If you want an education system that is open and available and high quality, regardless of where you come from, it’s the SNP that has pursued the policies that will protect that.
What were you like during your time as a student?
I was quite studious as a student – maybe with hindsight a bit too much actually. I did the rebellious and mad things and thoroughly enjoyed my student life. I was quite involved in politics at university as well. I was at Glasgow and my student years were some of the happiest of my life. I don’t think university is necessarily the be all and end all in terms of choices but I would always say if university is what you want to do, go for it because it’s a great way to spend those formative years of your life.
How do you think your own experiences shaped your current politics?
The university related experience that most affects me is that I grew up in a working class family and my parents were great in terms of supporting me and encouraging me. My parents weren’t wealthy so if I’d had to pay tuition fees or even had the prospect of accruing debt, I would never have gone to university. I had that opportunity and it’s the education I got, probably more than any other single thing, that enables me to do the job I’m doing now. Having had that opportunity, and it’s one of the strongest beliefs that I’ve got actually, I’ve no right to take that away from anybody else. That’s why I feel so strongly about free education.
This article was originally produced as part of a series for thestudentadvertiser.co.uk