On the 12th of July, Forward Thinking brought together a cross-party panel of political leaders – Members of Parliament and local councillors – to engage with a range of young Muslim/BME leaders and community activists at different stages of their professional careers, interested in politics. The aim was to provide a space in which participants could discuss both the challenges and opportunities that face BAME young people entering into politics in the UK, with the panel sharing insights and experiences from their own careers.

The panel included:

  • John Grogan MP – is a British Labour Party politician, who is the current Member of Parliament (MP) for Keighley. He was formerly Member of Parliament for Selby between 1997 and 2010.
  • Councillor Hashim Bhatti – the first British Pakistani to be selected by the Conservative Party in Windsor for the local council elections and Chair of the youth wing of the Conservative Muslim Forum.
  • Councillor Fozia Shaheen – the Councillor for Toller Ward, Bradford, she was awarded Young Councillor of the Year, 2016, for demonstrating a commitment to working for her community.
  • Councillor Salma Arif –  One of the youngest councillors to be elected to Leeds City Council with over 78% of the vote.

Discussions explored several themes, and recognised that BAME young people face a number of additional hurdles if they want to enter a career in politics. Often they face pressure to change or mask aspects of their identity, and have to confront overt or hidden forms of prejudice. Women of colour, face additional barriers and often still need to confront entrenched attitudes that “politics is for men.” However, the UK is changing and there are a growing cohort of political leaders from a diverse range of backgrounds. These figures can act as an important role model and help young people realise that it is possible to break into politics. They also have a responsibility to actively support the development of a new generation of political leaders, through making them aware of the opportunities that exist and providing mentoring and guidance.

In the current context there are broader challenges that also deter young people from politics. Many feel ignored by the political class at large and fail to see how politics is connected to their daily lives. Some argued that austerity had further limited the opportunities for young people to make their voices heard, as spaces for youth centres have closed and other programmes have had to shut down. However, others felt that limited resources for youth services were only the most visible manifestation of a wider cultural challenge in the UK, where the perspectives of young people are not respected and taken seriously. These barriers can only be fully overcome, it was suggested, when young people engage with and exert pressure on the system. Disengagement and political apathy – although understandable – only makes it less likely that the political class will respond to the issues that concern young people.

This event formed part of Forward Thinking’s Pathways into Politics programme, which explores how to address some of the barriers to youth engagement. The inaugural Pathways into Politics event was launched in the House of Commons with Parliamentary support on 18th April 2018 and chaired by Dominic Grieve QC MP. The report of this meeting can be downloaded for free here.