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 are a lot of voices in the media right now telling young people that they shouldn’t vote in this General Election. For you, why is it important and why should young people go out and vote?
I think politics is important because it shapes the world around us. If people want to participate in that and they want to have ownership in their own future, then they’ve got to go out and be involved. One of the things that gets me most angry is when people say young folk aren’t political. I think they’re intensely political.
They may not be party political but in terms of joining online campaigns or single issue groups, you see people who are willing to spend a lot of time and effort and put a lot of themselves into areas of change. I would say there are lots of ways you can change things in this country by voting and by choosing not to vote, you are essentially counting yourself out in those areas.
One of the frequent reasons given for young people not voting is a sort of disillusionment with so called ‘establishment’ parties. More often than not, one of the parties involved in that description would be the Conservative Party. Does that perception of the party make it difficult to get your message across to young people?
Well in Scotland we’ve not actually been a part of the establishment for a long time! I think people respond to the message carrier. Most people understand the job that I do in Scotland and the job I do in the Scottish Parliament.
One of my great joys in recent years was working through the Better Together campaign and working with some of our youth advocates. I think there’s a whole generation of people who were involved on the cutting edge of a political debate in the referendum and don’t want to just put that aside now, they want to keep that momentum going. I think for that reason, the future of politics in Scotland really is in very safe hands.
One thing that can be a confusing aspect for people is the crossover between the Westminster and Scottish wings of any given party. When it comes to the Conservatives, how much of what we see in Westminster in terms of policy is also true in Scotland?
Well I have complete autonomy in Scotland over policy, over candidates, over party management and over all of our campaigns. Everything we do in Scotland really comes under my purview but we’re all Conservatives. In terms of what’s being going on in Westminster in terms of trying to keep the long-term economic recovery going and trying to create jobs, I really support and respect my colleagues for the work they’ve been doing.
There seems to be a viewpoint among some young people that Conservative policies in Westminster such as housing benefit cuts for the under 25s and increases in tuition fees have been targeted at young people specifically because they don’t go out and vote and when they do, they often don’t vote Conservative. How would you respond to that?
Well I would say no, absolutely not. We’re working to create opportunities for young people coming up now. On housing benefit, lots of young people across Scotland instead of going on a social housing list, will go and share in private rented accommodation. That’s what I did as a student.
Even when I finished my degree, I had to move back in with my parents because my first job was quite low paid. We’re trying to make sure that first jobs are better paid and that’s why we’re raising the minimum wage higher than inflation and we’re not taking tax away from people who are low earners.
Down south, you can see the difference in the approach to education and there are more people from poorer backgrounds attending university because bursaries are much higher. In the Scottish Parliament, we’ve also led the fight against the SNP’s cuts to college and university places.
So I think while we do try and make sure we have an economy that works for everybody across the UK, I think that we’ve done a lot for young people.
Whilst there are obviously positives in there, it can seem like a lot of the cuts the Conservatives have brought in are disproportionately affecting some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Can you understand why that might leave people frustrated?
Well I would reject that on the grounds that we’re trying to get more people into work. I’m proud that there are fewer children in Scotland right now living in workless households than we’ve seen before. I’m proud that we’ve been able to raise the minimum wage and we’ve been able to say to people going forward that you will never pay income tax if you work 30 hours on the minimum wage.
I’m also proud that we’ve been able to reform welfare to make it easier for people to get back into work and we’ve got child poverty lower now than at any time under the last Labour government. These are all things we’ve done to try and make sure that we’re puting money into people’s pockets on the lower end of the scale.
We know that when recessions happen, the people who suffer most are those on the lowest wages and lowest incomes, not just in this country but in every country. That’s why we’ve taken the decisions we have to make sure that inequality is falling and that’s what we’re seeing.
For you, why are the Conservatives the best party to represent young people and give them a voice?
Because we want to give them the opportunity to do whatever it is that they crave. The reason I came into politics is because I want a young person growing up in Scotland right now to have an opportunity that is limited only by their own ambition so that whatever it is they want to be in life, there’s a job there for them.
I think it’s a disgrace in 2015 Scotland that the single biggest indicator of whether you’re going to be a poor adult is whether you’re parents are poor and the best way to break that cycle is to make sure there are better opportunities for all. That means better schools and better jobs at the end of it and that’s what we’re trying to achieve.
What were you like during your time as a student?
As a student, I was probably more interested in the extra-curricular activities than I was in my lectures. I did an arts course, sort of English and Scottish literature, at Edinburgh and a lot of my lectures were at nine or ten in the morning. I can’t honestly say hand on heart that I attended all of them – or anywhere near all of them – and that’s possibly why I maybe don’t have the best degree in the world. I don’t recommend that approach to anyone. If I was to go back and do it all again, I would make sure I wasn’t so seduced by the lifestyle outside of my classroom but it was good fun and I certainly enjoyed it.
This article was originally produced as part of a series for thestudentadvertiser.co.uk