Mhairi Black is making history. In 24 hours, the maiden speech of the Scottish National Party’s MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South has been watched almost 3.5 million times on the Channel 4 Facebook page alone. At 20 years of age, Britain’s youngest MP since 1667 spoke with wit and power. Even the Daily Mail, a newspaper that seldom praises the SNP, called Black’s speech one of the best of the year.
For today, at least, she is Britain’s political superstar. But what can we learn from our youngest MP about the prospects for young people in parliament and the representation of young voters during this parliamentary term?
Young people need champions
Mhairi Black takes her seat at a time when parliament could scarcely be more distrusted by the population it serves. Although her wit raised a laugh, she made an important point about the distance young voters perceive between themselves and the politicians who represent them in policy:
My housing is subsidised by the state … but in this budget the Chancellor abolished any housing benefit for anyone under the age of 21. We are now in the ridiculous situation whereby, because I am an MP, not only am I the youngest, but I am also the only 20-year-old in the whole of the UK who the chancellor is prepared to help with housing.
Black is right. We let young people suffer the worst of the recession. We are now leaving them out of the economic recovery. Britain is blessed with an educated, well-connected generation of young people who are deeply concerned about the cost of living and affordable housing.
Before the election, I wrote that Britain is right to worry that the young generation is an abstention generation, but that the answer to young abstention is showing them a vote can provide effective representation and power over policy. Too often, political parties leave young politics in the youth wing. Mhairi Black can help bring young policy to the centre of debate.
Young people need an opposition
Invoking the words Labour giant Tony Benn, Mhari Black called for Labour and the SNP to work together in opposition, saying:
Let us come together. Let us be that opposition. Let us be that signpost of a better society.
Many young voters are likely to share the sentiment. And Black is correct by identifying housing as a vital issue. In 1990, a third of first-time buyers were under 25. In 2015, the figure has fallen to 16%. If this economy is to fully recover, we must not continue to keep its youngest workers unhoused and underpaid: and we need political parties to put young people’s needs at the forefront.
It is important to note that despite promises of a “land of opportunity” for the young, the fact is that, for many young people, work does not pay. Poverty has risen to 31.5% for 16 to 25-year-olds, who have been hit hard by a change in the work market away from permanent work to temporary and zero-hours contracts that pay wages lower than they can live on.
Young people are now three times more likely to work on a zero-hours contract. Income for young adults fell further during the recession than for any other age group: among young people in work between 2007 and 2014, real median pay fell 15%, compared to 6% for older workers.
Meanwhile, our response has been to cut young people out of housing benefit entirely – and to replace Jobseeker’s Allowance for 18 to 21-year-olds looking for work, with a youth allowance scheme, enforcing 30 hours compulsory labour for a £57.35 per week, equating to about £1.91 per hour. We should hope that Mhairi Black represents a new opposition ready to put support for young people at the centre of the recovery.
A voice for young women
Mhairi Black is the youngest MP and, as such she must work to help unravel the web of distrust and scandal that parliament has woven around itself since the 1990s. Abstention has become the majority act of young voters at UK elections. If we want to bring young people back into the electoral decision, we have to provide them competent, convincing candidates. Mhairi Black is just the sort of person who has historically been missing from this country’s highest decision making body.
Black represents Britain’s young people as they are. She comes from a working class family, she is a football fan and she has had her Twitter account pulled apart for swearwords and slang. She is articulate, intelligent and able. She has suffered slurs and sexism and carried on ever stronger. If Mhairi Black wants to, she can stand as a symbol for the young people of Britain.
We should recognise that Mhairi Black is especially important as a member of the female majority of our population who are represented by just 29% of MPs. Young women face specific disadvantages in political participation, ranging from the gender pay gap to access to higher education.
We need more young people in power, and specifically young women in power across our political institutions. As a democratic representative for that dangerously under-represented group, Mhairi Black is exactly what parliament needs.