New Internationalist

Rax Interview with Emily Thornberry MP

In July, New Internationalist published The Rax Active Citizenship Toolkit. It is aimed primarily at teachers and students of Citizenship Studies in UK schools but in fact it can be used by anyone seeking to engage more actively in the world around them.The Toolkit is a landmark in textbook innovation, graphic style, approach to content and attitudes to learning. It also contains exclusive interviews with a range of voices, from popstars and politicians to young active citizens. Over the coming weeks we will be posting the full text of the Rax interviews.

Emily Thornberry has been a Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury since 2005. Before entering politics, she was a barrister specializing in human rights. The Rax team caught up with Emily in February 2010. 

What are the issues that you think are most important for young people to address today?

I think the most important issues for young people differ a lot depending on their situation. If a young person is living in overcrowding at home, then getting better housing will be a big issue; if they're working part-time, then workers' right will matter to them; if they're coming out at school, then bullying may be an issue.

Young people should address what's important to them - though there are also some issues, which will affect all young people as they grow up. All young people have a stake in limiting and mitigating the effects of climate change, and making sure we have a fair economy where they can get a job and earn a decent wage.

Young people often feel distrustful of politicians, that they don't really care about the younger generations and (in the wake of the expenses scandal) that they are in some way corrupt. How can this perception be readdressed and youth engagement with politics be encouraged?

I think the expenses scandal did enormous damage to MPs' reputation. However I hope that we have got rid of the MPs who have most seriously abused the system, and we can now start to rebuild trust.

I think getting young people engaged in politics is a two-way process. Politicians should spend time going to schools, inviting young people to Parliament, and getting themselves known. But young people should also realise that whatever the drawbacks, MPs and political parties are still the most effective way to get things changed.

What are your views on campaign groups that use non-violent direct action as part of their strategy?

I greatly respect the courage of anyone who will put themselves on the front line and use direct action to make their point. It can be a very effective part of a campaign strategy - and clever campaign groups will work out when it is most effective to use direct action, and when quiet negotiation behind the scenes is what's needed.

The suffragettes, who campaigned for women's right to vote, used direct action. Suffragettes chained themselves to statues in the Houses of Parliament to make the point that they were, as women, being denied the right to vote. Direct action was a central part of their strategy and it was the right thing for them to do.

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 pandemics, unemployment and violent crime becoming part of their every day reality. What can you say to provide young people with an authentic sense that they can do something to find solutions to these problems?

Every generation in Britain has faced its own problems. And every generation has found its own solutions to these problems, even though they may have seemed scary and even insurmountable at first.

Whether it was responding to the Great Depression in the 1930s, fighting fascism in the 1940s, or dealing with nuclear standoffs in the 1980s, every generation has found a solution. The young people of today should have the courage and confidence to know that they too will be able to tackle the problems that they face.

Problems like climate change and terrorism will require international solutions - and will often have worse effects overseas than in the UK - and so I hope today's young people will keep their minds focused on the world outside our borders.

What would your top three overall pieces of advice be for young active citizens seeking to make a change in their world through taking informed and responsible action?

First, find out more about party politics. Single-issue campaigns are very important, but political parties in Government make the changes. Take a look at the parties of Government and see which one you like. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives are perfect - but they are each broad movements of people, and one of them will have their hands on the levers of power so you need to understand them.

Second, be prepared to compromise. No-one wants to compromise, but sometimes we have to. You should never compromise your inner convictions and your driving principles - but in real life, when you're arguing with lots of different people and the world is a difficult place to get things done, you often have to compromise. It's infinitely better to comprise and get 70 per cent of what you wanted, than refuse to compromise and get nothing.

Third, have confidence in yourself. People are not necessarily more likely to be right just because they are older. They may have more experience, and it is often wise to learn from them, but believe in the value of your convictions about what you want to achieve.

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