A brunette woman smiles at the camera, with her teeth on show. She wears a coral blazer over a white top
Credit: John Smith Centre

Cleaning up the system – whose fault is it anyway?

By David Swanson

An exclusive with Kezia Dugdale: Director of the John Smith Centre.

Glasgow is amidst another local election cycle. We’ve seen this before. Fanfare, spectacle, the red carpet dusted off to entice you to vote. The usual campaign hullabaloo has once again arrived, but it’s not been hard to detect the cloud of apathy on campus. Amidst all the grandeur, a stark reality remains: a sizable portion of University of Glasgow students are disillusioned with the current state of democracy. 

How has it come to this? Do politicians simply not care; are they too cemented in the ivory tower to speak in our interests? Perhaps we’re all a bit cynical, and the apple of rule by the people simply doesn’t taste as good unless it’s being served up as a binary-choice referendum. A recent conversation with an undergraduate student certainly displayed such apathetic sentiments: she was convinced if we could only ‘’clean up the system’’, we’d be able to recover. But who’s fault is it anyway – and is the situation retrievable? Kezia Dugdale, former leader of the Scottish Labour Party – and now Director of the John Smith Centre – sits down with The Glasgow Guardian to ponder such questions. 

Fixing Voter Turnout: Encouraging a Deeper Sense of Democratic Participation 

Ms Dugdale acknowledges ‘’the decline in voter turnout is universal across Europe’’ – the research shows that there is a ‘’higher trend year-on-year of young people who choose to stay at home.” Indeed, she also points towards the source: ‘’young people are now more likely to protest about a particular issue than vote for a Member of Parliament.”

However, she also offers a clear message: ‘‘it’s quite often written up as proving that young people are apathetic; but the evidence doesn’t back that up: at all.” Instead of deriding the youth as irresponsible charlatans who don’t care about the world, we must – in Kezia’s words – ‘’recognise that the act of protest is a legitimate act of political participation and foster such passionate sentiments.” ‘’It’s not just about voting’’ she muses, ‘’but also encouraging our young people towards democratic participation in a whole variety of different ways.”

Indeed, she cites the work of the John Smith Centre as a solution: “young people will only feel included when they become an integral part of the solution – it’s why we seek to train them to become the next generation of leaders and policymakers.”  In a lasting pledge, she notes that “we will see turnouts improving if we seek to include the voices of our young people in the future.”

When One Leader Fails: We All Fail

To Ms Dugdale, the conduct of political leaders is paramount to restoring trust. “Trust has always been low,” she jests, ‘’and that’s healthy in a democracy – but the problem in Britain is that it’s getting really low.” In the context of Partygate, she delivers a sobering message: ‘’every time we have a scandal, it’s reinforcing what people already think – all politicians are at fault, and all parties have a stake in the blame.” In the end, she drops a rather pressing question: ‘’how much can we afford trust to fall before it becomes an endemic issue?’’

‘’The buck stops with all political leaders.” she states. ‘’To restore trust in politics, rules must be followed.” A telling suggestion, perhaps, that when the Prime Minister and his cabinet defy their own mantras, the public become further inclined to stop listening. In her own words: ‘’politics must clean up its own act to stand any chance of restoring public trust.”

Here too, however, solutions flow from Ms Dugdale. ‘’There’s a really strong case for diversity in representation within our politics: we are more likely to trust people if they look and sound like us’’. She goes further: “we need more diverse representation across the protected characteristics spectrum – more women, more people with disabilities, more people of colour.” Indeed, she also cites how the John Smith Centre seek to play a part in that: applications are now open on the website for their Minority Ethnic Emerging Leaders internship programme.

With Great, Rights Comes Great Responsibility: Our Role in ‘Rule By The People’

Kezia sees a place for us all to have a role in restoring a greater trust in politics. Her words offer a chance for reflection: “I think we’re less exposed now, as citizens, to viewpoints that are different from our own.” Indeed, she goes further: ‘’we’re also less tolerant of them when we do hear them’’. With this analysis comes a call for better interactions: “the problem is not reaching out beyond our own bubble, and I’m afraid we’re all charged with that.” As a citizen then, we have some agency in cleaning up the system.

Indeed, Ms Dugdale has also sought to put these morals into practice at the John Smith Centre. Under her initiative, the centre runs an annual Parliamentary Internship Programme, where students learn from representatives of all persuasions within the Scottish Parliament. To her, the logic is clear: “we need to be able to disagree and debate better than we currently do.”

Seemingly then: there are multiple ways to “clean up the system.” For Ms Dugdale, the equilibrium between rulers and ruled can be restored – and each part of the chain has an important role to play in its realisation. She leaves a lasting call to action: ‘’Failure to act will feed a politics rooted in fear, anger, and disappointment. It is everyone’s duty to restore a politics which can instead endorse hope, opportunity and possibility.”


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