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 talking about whether or not young people should go out and vote. For you, why does it matter that young people go out and vote?
It matters for young people because if you don’t vote, politics will just look after different generations. We’re driven by the people who vote for us. We’re creatures of the democratic system and if you don’t take part in that system then generally whilst your views may not get ignored, they won’t get the priority they would otherwise deserve.
If you want to influence society or have a voice in how society is run, then even though it might not always work, voting is the best way to do that.
One thing we hear a lot is that young people are crying out for one of the mainstream parties to really represent them. In your view, why are the Liberal Democrats the party to do that?
We’ve been the natural party for students and graduates for a long time. Our copy book has been blotted in recent years for obvious reasons but naturally, we’re internationalist, we’re progressive, we’re liberal and tolerant and we’re very much the kind of party that I think is a natural fit for students.
It’s interesting that support for the Lib Dems has fallen among young people in recent years though. Why do you think that is?
Tuition fees are the obvious reason. We said we would do one thing which we weren’t able to do. People are finding it difficult to forgive and forget and all I would say is, yeah, we got that thing wrong and it was a mistake – a big mistake – but look at all the other things that we’ve got right. Students who have got part time jobs will not be paying any income tax at all as a result of raising the tax thresholds. That simply would not have been done without the liberal democrats.
Realistically though, to what extent do you think you’ll be able to win back student support at this election?
My job and the job of other political leaders really is going to be to restore that faith that’s clearly been lost. I think we let you down in 2010 and we won’t do that again because you’ve been the lifeblood of our party for a long time and I think we need you and you need us in order for young people’s voices to be heard. There is still an awful lot of work to be done to restore that confidence. It’s proven by actions; that’s the way we do it. If we say we’re going to do something, we do it. In this election we’ve said that investing in education is our top priority; something we really believe in. We’re going to prioritise that in any negotiations for coalition and we’ll deliver it. That’s the kind of action that will reassure people that we’re true to our word.
You say that higher education is an important issue for the Liberal Democrats. What does that actually mean in terms of policy?
Because the issue is devolved, we have a different approach from our colleague down south. For students in Scotland, what you get with the Liberal Democrats is a commitment to no tuition fees; a commitment to restoring the level of student support which has been diminished by the SNP through increasing loans and cutting grants for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. We want to raise the repayment threshold for loans up to what it is in England, which is £21,000. Those are the issues that we will continue to make the case for up here.
I wanted to ask you about the possibility of the Lib Dems going into a coalition after the election. Between Conservative and Labour, which party would you rather see the Lib Dems go into an agreement with?
It’s not really a choice because it’s up for the voters to decide who the biggest party is and that’s the party we’ll speak to first. If we can form a stable government that delivers on Lib Dem’s policies then that’s what we’ll do.
For you though, which party do you think would the most likely to be able to help deliver on those promises?
Nah, I’m not answering that because it’s not about who we prefer. If I was in favour of the Labour Party, I would go off and join the Labour Party and vice versa with the Tories. I’m not, I’m a Liberal Democrat and I’ll just keep trying to get the most seats and the most influence for our party.
One thing people will worry about when voting Lib Dem here with the current voting system for general elections, is the idea of their vote being a ‘wasted vote’. Is it time we looked to reform the election process?
I think it is yes. We’ve got a different system now in Scotland in both Holyrood and local elections and I don’t see many people complaining about that system. It’s normal now and it’s stable and it represents far better how people vote. So yeah, absolutely, it’s time to change it. It seems natural for me for people’s vote to be accurately reflected. I think that’s a vital part of democracy but some people obviously find it difficult to accept that.
What were you like during your time as a student and how did those experiences influence your politics?
I went to college in Paisley before it was the University and did a degree in biology there before moving on to do a diploma in industrial administration at Glasgow College, which is now Glasgow Caledonian. I got involved in student politics. At that stage I was the deputy president of the Student Assembly and I ran some of the Union side of things. I got involved with the Liberal Democrats around that kind of time as well.
At the time, Paisley was hardly a hotbed of liberalism, I’d have to say, but there was a few Lib Dems around. So really that experienced my politics a lot. I was able to stand up for what I believed in an environment that wasn’t necessarily favourable to Liberal Democrats.
This article was originally produced as part of a series for thestudentadvertiser.co.uk