Jeremy Browne writes… Why I voted against the UK Youth Parliament meeting in the Commons

Yesterday Lib Dem Voice highlighted the vote by MPs to allow the UK Youth Parliament to meet in the chamber of the House of Commons at a time when it’s not sitting. Jeremy Browne and Bob Russell were the two Lib Dem MPs to vote against. In this article for LDV Jeremy explains his position.

The vote on Monday was a free vote on House of Commons business and every Liberal Democrat MP was free to vote how he or she wished. Apart from the party spokesman, I was the only Liberal Democrat MP who attended the overwhelming majority of the debate. I had originally been minded to abstain, but the arguments made on Monday in favour of the Government’s position were so weak that I believed they were unworthy of even this lukewarm endorsement.

I also objected to the Government Chief Whip, on House business, walking into a debate that he had previously not attended, when MPs had been waiting hours for an opportunity to speak, and curtailing the discussion over an hour before it was scheduled to conclude.

As for the issue itself, during the division a Government whip was shouting “For the Youth Parliament that way; against the Youth Parliament that way”. This was a total caricature of the debate, but it is typical of the casual misrepresentation and authoritarianism that Labour also displays when it seeks to frame the decision over a universal DNA database or ID cards as being between those who oppose criminals and those who support them.

I am supportive of the Youth Parliament, and I am even more supportive of young people engaging in politics. It does seem, though, that the case made for this measure – that it will stimulate interest in politics amongst young people across the country – is rather optimistic.

My assessment is that young people are often disengaged for more complex reasons. They see MPs unwilling or unable to address the big issues of our time, such as climate change. They see a Prime Minister make a wholly misleading case in Parliament for going to war without any sanctions subsequently being taken against him. And I suspect that many are suspicious of the sub-Blairite, values-free, empathy-based, empty gesture politics which now also characterises the Conservative leadership and which was, ironically, perfectly exemplified by the motion being discussed.

My reservations about the Government motion were essentially two-fold.

At present, the situation is very clear-cut: everyone elected as an MP can participate in debates in the House of Commons chamber, and everyone who is not elected cannot. In its upholding of democracy, it is a very pure position, and I would be opposed to, for example, Lord Mandelson participating in House of Commons debates.

Now that principle has been breached, I cannot see any consistent case for preventing any group from using the House of Commons chamber for their deliberations. The Youth Parliament has a representative mandate of sorts, but then so does the General Synod, the Muslim Council of Great Britain and the Annual Meeting of the Women’s Institute. So, for that matter, do the executive of UKIP, and many other political groups that might make many MPs feel much more uncomfortable. If we decide to discriminate against them in the future, it will cause understandable resentment.

Anyone with these reservations, including me, is criticised by some people as being a “traditionalist” or “fuddy-duddy”. And I do not doubt that the same criticism would be made if objections were raised in future to television celebrities staging a one-off mock Parliament on Red Nose Day to raise funds for impoverished children in Africa. Who would now dare to object, and risk being aggressively branded as out-dated and out-of-touch?

Some people will take the view that the chamber of the House of Commons should be open to any group, including all those listed above, or for any other activity, and that this would show that politicians are more “in touch”. That is a legitimate view, but it is not one that I hold.

My second point could be portrayed, unfairly in my view, as being guided by concerns over status. Everyone in politics knows people who have striven, election-after-election, to become an MP, and have never succeeded. It remains a lifetime disappointment to them. Other people have eventually got elected after decades of unsuccessful political toil. Even those who are somewhat wary of Parliament’s more dated arrangements, such as myself, feel a definite sense of pride and achievement at having won a seat and earned the right to sit and debate in the House of Commons chamber. I did not sit in the House of Commons before I was elected, and I would not contemplate sitting in it after I cease to be an MP.

I feel, in a rather intangible but still genuinely-felt way, that these endeavours and achievements are subtly undermined by the chamber being used by people who have never stood at a General Election and have never known the exhilaration and dejection that can both result from being subjected to the full democratic process.

I want young people to aspire to becoming elected Parliamentarians, although I suspect the members of the Youth Parliament probably need the least encouragement. But I dislike the trait in New Labour that loves to award prizes without requiring the prior effort and level of attainment that gives those prizes meaning.

All places of significance acquire a quality that gives them additional meaning, whether it is the chamber of the House of Commons, the High Court, the Oval Office or the centre court at Wimbledon. Some people will take the view that the chamber of the House of Commons is just another room, and to think otherwise demonstrates that MPs are not “in touch”. That is also a legitimate view, but it is also not one that I hold.

I know that my position is not accepted by many people, but I hope that it at least demonstrates that I gave some thought to my votes, and that it is right for every Liberal Democrat MP to be cautious about any rush to embrace fashionable orthodoxy.

* Jeremy Browne is Liberal Democrat MP for Taunton.

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10 Comments

  • While Lord Mandelson should probably not be permitted to participate in Commons debates, it is very silly that parliament does not innovate to allow him to stand at the Dispatch Box and be scrutinised by MPs.

    Thanks for posting your opinions on the Youth Parliament matter, which are thoughtful (if bizarre, in my judgement).

  • David Morton 19th Mar '09 - 12:46am

    Free votes are free votes and lots of Kudos for writing an article justifying the decision when frankly you didn’t have to.

    However surely the most bizzare reasoning for a position ever put forward on this site ? Its also a deeply conservative set of arguments. Shades of the debate on the 1832 Reform Bill come over.

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 19th Mar '09 - 7:59am

    Sorry Jeremy but I can’t understand your position.

    I felt great excitement when I stood up to speak in the High Court for the first time. I worked hard to earn it and the feeling never goes away. Although that feeling comes more from what I am doing (and the consequences thereof) than where I am.

    If the courts are used for youth mock trials it doesn’t reduce my feelings about the place, nor diminish the dignity of the court.

    To repair the dignity and esteem of the Commons, shouldn’t many MMPs improve their behaviour in the chamber?

    The argument that other groups have a claim to use the chamber is wrong. UKYP are in a unique position as they represent people (u-18s) barred from voting for MPs.

  • Surely there is a difference between kinds and other groups- in that kids cannot stand for election or indeed vote.

    While someone from say, a charity, can put themselves forward as a candidate, this is not possible for somoene young enough to be a member fo the youth parliament.

    The whole point of allowing them to go sit the the chamber would be to give them a taster of what they may one day achieve- I doubt very much that any of them would look on sitting there as a member fo the youth parliament to be the fufillment of their entire lifes ambitions.

  • I totally get where you are coming from but, as a member of the UKYP, I would like to argue that we are called ‘youth parliament’ for a reason, we are elected to represent the people in our constituency and we often have to make the very hard decisions, that MPs often fail to do, which is to do what we think the people in our constituency want us to do, not what we ourselves would prefer. It is increadibly important to the UKYP, for it to continue in the way it is now, to be more high profile and at least appear to have the backing of the government.
    The UKYP is in a very important time, we are getting more people voting for us than are voting for some of our local MPs and we are working closer with the devolved nations. To be able to hold the meeting where we decide our campaigns-the meeting we held in the house of lords last year- in the chamber of commons is a great leap forward and will hopfully enable us to reach a larger group of young people with our message.

    Sally

  • dreamingspire 21st Mar '09 - 9:50am

    I support Sally’s argument. Not long ago I heard a (now no longer, for he is now over 18) UKYP Member from Devon speak at a forum in London about public transport, supporting a senior County Council officer. UKYP is unique in that it is both representative and also a training organisation. No longer is the Oxford Union the only training arena.

  • Grammar Police 23rd Mar '09 - 10:12am

    Heaven forfend that the Oxford Union is any kind of training area! ;o)

  • Alex Mitchell 23rd Mar '09 - 4:48pm

    Hi, My name is Alex and i am the MYP for South Somerset.

    I can see where your coming from in the sense that if we keep pushing boundaries for people to debate in the house of commons then i suppose in the end the general public will be able to.

    But this is UK Youth Parliament, its an organization for children who want to have a voice and want to be heard. Although i have only just joined this year, i have seen what we can do already and i am very excited about the future. I think that as a Youth Parliament we can do so many more wonderful things for young people of our own age, and now with the house of commons to be used i think its full steam ahead for UK Youth Parliament.

    Many thanks

    Alex Mitchell
    MYP for South Somerset

  • Holly Buxton 20th Jul '10 - 5:27pm

    I am a member of the UK Youth Parliament, and whilst the personal benefits of the organization, in the sense of building confidence and key skills, as well as knowledge and the chance to have a voice, are only the beginning of the work we do and the outcomes we achieve, I do not feel that the majority of MP’s and adults in general, respect and UNDERSTAND the work that we do and how passionate every single young person in the organization is! Even those MP’s that voted for us to debate on such a memorable day may not even understand the benefits and vital work that we do.

    Whilst I can understand a fraction of what you are saying here and I respect your personal decision, you say that: “Everyone in politics knows people who have striven, election-after-election, to become an MP, and have never succeeded.” You express that it is unfair and that we do not deserve to debate in the Commons chamber given that we haven’t experienced these tough elections… I assure you we have. This is my second year as an elected member of UKYP and after three election periods and the extent of hard work that we put in, we DO deserve this privilege which is not only, as you say, a “reward” but it is beneficial to the government and to every single young person, who ideas and opinions were collated and expressed during the debates. The debate, in the opinion of many, was more lively, productive and effective than that of a normal sitting.

    As I have mentioned, this is my second year of UKYP and I wish for you to know that in my local area (not all area do this) we are elected in exactly the same way as a normal general election. Every single young person in Wakefield (West Yorkshire) receives a ballot paper and has the right to vote. This year, there were 17 candidates in one sub section of the district alone. We work equally as hard, if not harder, than a general election candidate to be elected with everything from canvasing and public speeches to forking out from our ‘pocket money’ and minimum wages for election materials! And often for many, in a time of exams and stress, the pressure and strive to become a youth MP is equal to that of someone over the age of 18- if not more. I would also like to add that it is equally a “lifetime disappointment to them” when not elected.

    This year: 51% of young people voted in our election and only 43% voted in the General Election! Point proven!

    I do agree with what you say about having to allow access to all organizations, however you contradict yourself in saying that this makes politicians seem more accessible and ‘human’ to the general public… this can’t be a bad thing? Surely it is nothing but positive to engage the currently disengaged public in politics. Given the recent general election and coalition government it seems like the perfect time to educate the Nation in politics, why not allow us to do this by building our profile and respect through an event like the House Of Commons Debate.

    As I often point out to people who feel negatively about the Youth parliament but positively about the Government, just because we are Under 18, why should we be restricted? We are fully elected members of YOUTH Parliament… that one word which means that we are unable to have enough of an input into the ‘goings-on’ of our country, bearing in mind that if a few years time, it will be us that deal with and live with the decisions that you make today. How is that fair?

    As I have mentioned, MP’s are too far disengaged from the Youth Parliament, but we are always happy, thrilled in fact, to enlighten you to the work we do and help you to understand why we are such a valuable and vital organization.

    I would be thrilled to hear back about your opinions as to the content of this comment and want you to know that I express my opinions to the matter of MP’s not agreeing with our worthiness of being allowed to debate, not specifically your personal opinions. Please feel free to contact me regarding this on [email protected] as I would love the opportunity to better express the work we do.

    Thank You,

    Holly Buxton, MYP for Wakefield
    (West Yorkshire, Yorkshire and Humberside)

    The opinions expressed in this comment/email are the opinions of the sender and not directly those of the UK Youth Parliament as an organization. Please respect this.

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