Thursday, 12 February 2009

Bringing people into politics

Yesterday was political awareness day at the Combined University of Cornwall at Tremough. Six parties had stands at the event and took part in a debate afterwards. The aim was to engage the next generation in political ideas.

The Conservative Party has a strong student branch at Tremough led by Matthew Brown -but, sadly, the Conservatives are the only party to have a student branch at all. The audience for the debate at the end of the day was a little thin. It is why probably the most important question was put to me at the very end of the session by a journalism student: how do you overcome voter apathy and engage young people in politics?

Some people, when asked that question, slip too easily into platitudes about the internet and Obama. But the internet is merely a medium. I think the real answer is more fundamental. We need to create the space for more conviction in politics and that requires a culture change.

We do need to have a party system in parliament so that there is a government of the day that can actually implement an agenda and an opposition that can hold it to account. But I think there is now a strong case to allow more free votes in parliament on more issues - where the parties step back and allow individual MPs to reach their own conclusions. It is increasingly accepted that issues strongly associated with personal conscience should be left to a free vote and I think that principle could be extended further.

My first job in politics was working for the anti euro 'no' campaign. It was a coalition of business leaders, trade unionists, Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem MPs as well as green campaigners and Scottish and Welsh nationalists. They were all united in their opposition to the euro - even though they had very different views on other issues. There was something very refreshing about people from so many different backgrounds working together in a coalition on a single issue. And, working with people like Labour MP Jon Cruddas (who incidentally is also a Cornishman), taught me to understand other political parties - even though I disagreed with him on many other issues.

My experience of running a cross party campaign led me to the view that referendums can have an important role in rekindling confidence and trust in our politics because it is healthy for the public to occasionally see politicians from all sorts of different parties working together on a single issue where they have a shared conviction. It should happen more often.