As a citizen I vote, stand as a candidate in elections, take part in the decision-making in our country at local, regional and national levels, pay my taxes to central and local government and am ready to serve on juries in criminal courts if my name comes out of the hat. These are the formal roles – but there are informal things we can all do too.
What issues do you think are most important for young people to address today?
Active young citizens in Britain can do lots of really useful things. You can help work out how best to involve many more young people in the decisions taken in your area and further away, to make our schools and colleges more successful at providing the education your generation needs for the years ahead, and to make sure as many people as possible understand the rights and responsibilities that come with being a citizen. There is also a lot of opportunity to become involved in public and community life locally. You can be elected to a council at eighteen and to parliament at twenty one and I heard recently of somebody appointed as a magistrate in their early twenties.
Young people often feel distrustful of politicians and think that they don't really care about the younger generation. How can this perception be readdressed and youth engagement with politicians be encouraged?
The more young people who can meet and see the work done by councillors, and members of the assemblies and parliaments around Britain and in Europe, the more chance young people will understand how important these jobs are. We always have people coming to our office to do work experience and internships and I try and arrange regular visits of schools, colleges and youth clubs to parliament and to see what I do in Southwark, which is where I have been the MP for. Young people are normally very happy to get stuck in when they have the chance to ask questions at any event, from one in the classroom or the youth club to one at university or on the radio or TV. Some of the best people to inspire the next generation to get involved in politics are people from their own age group and charismatic and well known public figures – especially public figures who are well known for other things!
What are your views on campaign groups that use non-violent direct action as part of their strategy?
Non-violent direct action is an important and valuable method of political campaigning. I have used it myself and it can work very successfully. It should not however replace other campaigning but be additional to it. It can also be good fun!
It is often said that the world in which young people are growing up in is a very scary one, with global warming, war, terrorism, recession, unemployment and violent crime becoming part of their every day reality. What can you say to calm those fears and provide young people with an authentic sense that they can do something to find solutions to these problems?
Yes the world is in some ways very scary, but that has always been the case. Happily there are some encouraging signs. There are fewer conflicts in the world than there were twenty and forty years ago; there are more people in work; there is a smaller proportion of the population in poverty; people live much longer, and many people are now spared from or successfully treated for illness and disease. There are also many people and groups working to maximise peace and end conflict. In our parliament I chair the all party parliamentary group on conflict issues and there is an international network of members of parliament trying to take more of our public spending round the world from armies and weapons and give it to conflict prevention. Northern Ireland is a good local example of how conflict can be ended and new hopes and structures can take over in a previously divided and dangerous community.
What would be your three top pieces of advice to young people who want to make a positive change in their world through campaigning?
My three top pieces of advice are:
- join a really good campaigning organisation and work with them
- take a gap year or a year during your twenties to go abroad to a country in the developing world where you do practical work that directly saves lives
- join or support a political party near where you live to campaign on issues that matter to you.