Politics out of the shadow

 

Ola and Malcolm standing in the Scottish Parliament lobby.
Ola Kasprzak with Malcolm Chisholm

Politicians, preoccupied with political rivalry, can forget the most important thing –  the needs of people they represent

Read Ola Kasprzak’s fascinating and forthright report of her experience  of shadowing two politicians in the Scottish Parliament and City of Edinburgh Council – she says they changed her negative opinion of politicians but her conclusions should be read by anyone standing for election this year. Or any other year.

WHY I WANTED TO TAKE PART?

I saw the Opening Doors shadowing programme as a great opportunity to increase my knowledge about political institutions and decision making processes so that I could make people in my community more aware of their rights and civil responsibilities and empower them to express their needs and concerns.

I think many people do not fully understand politics and realize how it affects the quality of their lives. They often perceive it as very abstract and unconnected to their everyday problems. This in turn can make politics even more distant from the ordinary member of society.

I come from a country where, for at least the last two decades, people have felt disengaged from politics. Frequent changes on the political scene and many scandals created a feeling of confusion, powerlessness and discouragement among Polish society. The situation illustrates how politicians, preoccupied with political rivalry, can forget the most important thing –  the needs of people they represent.

Ola at Swietlica, the Polish drop-in club in Leith

Perhaps these bad experiences help to explain the lack of civil engagement among the Polish community living in Scotland. Financial circumstances and the struggle to satisfy more basic needs may be another element.  Added to that,  the current economic and political climate (scapegoating migrant workers for the rise in unemployment), reinforces tensions and discrimination.  As a result members of ethnic minorities feel more excluded and withdraw further from social and political life.

WHAT I DID?

Shadowing Malcolm Chisholm in the Scottish Parliament and Lesley Hinds in the City of Edinburgh Council gave me a chance to see the work of politicians on two levels. Both of them ensured that I could observe the wide variety of their work.

With Malcolm I could see the work of different committees (Equal Opportunities, Subordinate Legislation and Public Petitions) and find out who they consist of and how they make decisions. I liked the fact that committees ensure public participation  and take into consideration opinions of different witnesses, specialists and members of organisations related to the issue.

The discovery for me was Public Petitions Committee, where every voter can lodge a petition. I think it could really benefit  society if this opportunity was better known.

Being in the Debating Chamber, where the competition between parties was visible in the way they present their views, was also an interesting experience.

Another part of the shadowing scheme I really enjoyed was spending time with Malcolm in the constituency, which included his surgery, visiting local community organizations (Mental Health Project and West Pilton Neighbourhood Centre in particular) and knocking on people’s doors and asking about their concerns. These were actions I did not expect from a politician and they definitely added a human face to the job.

Thanks to Lesley Hinds I was able to see the work of a city councilor, observing the Fire Board Committee and Labour Group discussing different topics and issues before the Council meeting. I discovered that the role of councilor requires a comprehensive knowledge from so many different areas. I also went with Lesley to her surgery, where people come with different concerns but all of them – even those which seem trivial – are treated seriously.

Lesley also gave me the opportunity to shadow her work in other organizations she is involved in, like community council and North Edinburgh Arts Board. It gave me an insight into how people from other communities work together and what they do to improve their lives.

CONCLUSIONS – ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

The shadowing scheme definitely helped to change my negative perception of politicians and increased my trust in them.

Thanks to Malcolm and Lesley I saw a human side of politics. I have learned that politicians are not just distant, patronizing figures, who are focused mainly on their careers but make an effort to be closer to people and hold  dialogue with them on an equal level.  I was  surprised there are so many ways of accessing politicians and politics for an ordinary person  – with public petitions committee as an additional advantage in Scotland. Above all, I have realized that the politician’s role requires a lot of time commitment, organizational skills and extensive knowledge.

However, I think that communication and cooperation between politicians and communities still needs to be improved.

  1. Politicians should make an effort to speak to the public but, on the other hand, people have to understand that this is also up to them to improve their lives.
  2. More actions should be taken to increase peoples’ awareness of ways of influencing politicians and politics (like, apart from voting in elections, public petitions committee, cross-party groups, politicians’ surgeries and other forms of contacting them).
  3. People need to learn more about other forms of civil activity. The importance of their involvement in non-governmental organizations (the third sector) should be emphasized. It is undoubtedly easier to impact politics working together with others. Association gives a group of people an identity and additional strength. Also cooperation and networking between different organizations can result in more creative ideas and give people more voice in political institutions.

I think this would ensure greater understanding of issues different communities and individuals face and help to change their reality for the better.

Ola is now working with local voluntary organisations after studying ‘Working with Communities’ at Jewel and Esk College. She is actively involved in Swietlica, the Polish community group in Edinburgh.

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