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Political Shadowing Scheme: Naina Shadowing the Scottish Green Party

Day One

I had set my alarm for five in the morning on my first day of shadowing because I was keen to make a good impression and punctuality seemed like one of the easier ways to do so.

However what I hadn’t done, which in hindsight I should have, was do some intense research on the MSPs which I was going to be shadowing, particularly John Finnie who I was due to shadow each day. Instead I just did some basic research on my phone on the train into Edinburgh and came up with some potential questions to ask.

I’d like to think they didn’t notice that I started following them as individuals on Twitter in the hours before I met them as I had always followed the official Green Party one, what with it being small enough to keep up with constantly.

My phone directions were easy enough to follow and when I checked with a local resident, she informed me that when arrived I would see the “big, ugly building” at the bottom of the road, so I knew I wouldn’t be lost.

When I arrived, I was worried I was going to be late because of the long queue of primary school children who were passing through security ahead of me. As I approached reception, I was told to go to security and told them my situation and my contact was contacted. The problem was that he didn’t pick up and wasn’t picking up the mobile and I was getting a bit panicky and didn’t know who else to ask for - I just felt very out of place.

However, someone eventually came and I was escorted to the Green Party offices. I was treated very, very well by everyone who I was introduced to and they seemed like a friendly bunch in general which made me feel a lot more comfortable and less nervous.

I was taken on a tour of parliament, including the Chamber where I sat on Nicola Sturgeon’s seat and wondered when it would be that there would be an ethnic minority First Minister and whether I could perhaps one day become that person as the security guard watching me from above informed me that I could do so “one day”.

I sat and watched a committee which was in regards to the use of stop and search by Police Scotland. I did have some questions regarding racial profiling by the police, however as I had been told by security to towards the back, I didn’t think it would be appropriate to ask.

I was shown how questions are sent to the government and how they respond, I was shown the wide variety of letters which MSPs deal with all day including the gassing of rabbits to stances on nuclear weapons.

What was also great was that the assistants of John Finnie were very open and welcoming and were also quite young so I felt comfortable with them and I was able to ask them any questions.

I was able to sit with the whole team at lunch and was introduced to everyone, including Patrick Harvie who was lovely and asked me some questions in regards to what I do and what I was doing there, more specifically.

There was a team meeting in the afternoon which I was allowed to sit in on and that was wonderful as Patrick Harvie made the entire room introduce themselves to me personally! It was a slightly awkward though when I ran out of ways to say “Hello” and “Hi there.”

Then I was taken to the chamber to watch some of the debate around Article 50 and it was then that I came to realise, I truly do align with the Green party as I found myself agreeing with them fervently and disagreeing with their competitors. It was a great feeling watching everyone in front of me and being able to witness how politics affects people’s everyday lives.

However it also reiterated to me why schemes such as this one are needed so badly. We are leaving are lives in the hands of groups of people who don’t represent us and our experiences - to truly make a difference to the lives of others, you must experience their lives yourself in some way and until we have a more diverse range of politicians in Scottish parliament, this will be unlikely to change.

We then also watched a rally outside parliament where a man fell into the pool of water surrounding a decorative fountain, which was a key highlight of the day for me.

Whilst I was there, it all felt a bit surreal, as if I was imagining it. However when I got home and told my family I was at parliament, being given a tour, lunching with the leader of the Green party and generally being treated like a VIP, it all became real and I am extremely grateful for such a wonderful opportunity.

Day Two

I felt a lot more comfortable on the second day of the scheme because I was now familiar with when I was going, where I was going and the people there and their welcoming nature so I was looking forward to it. I also wasn’t due to start until 10am so I had more time to get ready for the day ahead.

This time when security called the office, there was an immediate answer and I was taken straight into the office and had the opportunity to actually sit down and speak with Alison Johnstone privately which was great. She asked me about myself and the scheme, and the conversation seemed natural and it was great to meet someone, particularly a politician, who seemed to share the exact same views as me in regards to quotas, for example, which I am a firm believer in - quotas until none are needed is my motto.

However the start of this day was slightly slower but I was soon introduced to her social security researcher, Dan, who had many tasks for me to do such as writing part of an article for The National about sanctions which the Green Party had successfully gotten rid of but the SNP seemed to be taking credit for…Dan also said he’d send me the link to the article which was great.

Anyway, I was then allowed to draft up some questions to ask the Scottish Government about child poverty following a report which had recently released and since this is an area which has always been of interest to me, I managed to get a few of them published so that the government is obliged to answer. This made me feel very empowered as I hadn’t previously thought I’d have the opportunity to directly question the government and hold them to account but with the help of this scheme, I am able to and make a positive impacts on people’s lives, especially in this case where it could make a difference to children living in poverty.

I then went and watched FMQs which was surreal. I was in this chamber full of people who essentially control society. I had always thought that the government was very distanced from “ordinary people”, that they didn’t know the impact of what policies they were making themselves, it was just a task to sign off in the race to become the leading party. Furthermore, I had always thought that as a black female, I wouldn’t be anywhere near them. We were just too different. But sitting there in the chamber, watching FMQs with such little distance between me and the First Minister, I realised that maybe politics is more accessible to “ordinary people” than we realise.

I was then taken to lunch by one of the team members, Juliette, who I really got on with so that was great. After that, there was meant to be an anti-racism event which all of us seemed to want to go to but it seemed as though but had been cancelled so I joined Alison at one about melanoma, a type of cancer which I hadn’t previously heard of and learnt a lot. However in hindsight, I should have asked to go along to the digital accessibility one with Juliette as that is something which I would personally be more interested in. I think I need to realise that I can change my day slightly to benefit me rather than sticking strictly to what is assigned purely because it is such a rare opportunity and I should really try to benefit from it personally as much as possible.

I was then asked to do some research on the child poverty report and look through responses which had been sent in (including one by CRER which I definitely included!) and outline them as a basis for a blog on ten things which need to be done to stop child poverty.

After finishing that, I was then able to write some responses to the letters which Alison had received on everything such as a suspected bus route cancellation and to confirm a new law to do with electric dog collars was being passed. Overall everything was great and I had a brilliant second day at Scottish Parliament.

Day Three

So this day was meant to be a Tuesday but my Tuesday morning consisted of a broken alarm clock, an angry mother, a delayed train, an argument with a fellow passenger and a declined debit card. What a disaster - way to make a good impression Naina - but it was sorted and I went on the Wednesday instead.

I’d gotten to the point where I felt comfortable in parliament from going through security to feeling like I was able to freely voice my opinions without fear of judgement.

I was meant to be shadowing Andy Wightman on this day and although he was very busy, he did make some time for me to talk to him which I very much appreciated. Whilst his portfolio consists of things which I don’t know much about such as tax affairs, we managed to have a good conversation about being an MSP in general and the highs and lows which come along with the job. It was great being able to hear someone be frank about life inside parliament. He also commended the replies to some of his letters that I had written that morning.

Although this was a bit of a slower day, I still managed to do various things including working through an extremely long document for the economy committee about the effects of Brexit on different job sectors. It was hard work but I managed to break it down and was told that those who read it were very impressed.

I also managed to sit on a meeting for Engender which is “an information, research and networking organisation for women in Scotland.” Most of what was spoken about was in regards to the role of women as both professionals and carers and how certain policies could be implemented to support them. As a feminist, I often participate in discussions and like to think I contribute to dialogue about feminism however seeing it from this perspective whereby these people actually have the power to make policies which are going to impact females in the country and and the greater legacy of feminism really brought home to me why politicians play such an important role in society.

The thing I like so much about the Green Party - as people, not politicians since that would be a whole other kettle of fish - is the fact that they are like a little family - they even have a unilateral declaration of lunch and invade the canteen together and they often crowd around one TV screen in an office to watch debates together despite everyone having their own - I think that is what makes me so comfortable with them. It gives me confidence to know that politicians aren’t always as distanced from the real world and ordinary people as we sometimes assume.

It also indicates to me that becoming a politician isn’t always for the elite, white, middle-class males - it can be for everyone from an intern from a rough area of Stirling to an Oxford graduate and until more people from ethnic minorities recognise that they can absolutely become a politician, we will not have a parliament which is reflective of the country and general society we live in.

Day Four

Storm Doris struck this morning, cancelling my train however I managed to inform my contact and to get to the Scottish Policy Conference on Mental Health in Edinburgh’s Radisson Blu, up the road from Parliament on the Royal Mile. I must say that it was a rather nice feeling walking into a conference where my badge has my name and my organisation down as “The Scottish Parliament.”

As someone who has previously had mental health issues, I was very interested in seeing what everyone had to say. I was most certainly not disappointed. Topics ranged from pre-natal mental health to mobile apps to the role of psychologists. The panel was full of experts with a vast amount of specialist knowledge between them as well as the audience themselves who raised various issues throughout the morning.

It was a really insightful conference and I was very pleased to see people speaking openly about mental health and the issues which surround it as I think in some groups it is often a taboo subject but this open dialogue and discussion made me think that maybe there is more hope for mental health services then I had initially thought.

Once I got back to Holyrood, I went to FMQs. As always I found this very interesting but particularly today because there were a range of subjects which were discussed including reduced prison sentences, policing and child mortality rates. This diverse range of topics simply reiterated to me how varied the work of politicians, particularly ministers, is.

However arguments between parties were fierce this week and it reminded me that not everyone is in the role to help better society, but for many, politics is simply a fight for power, which is simply the harsh reality of politics.

I also have to mention that I find it very hard to keep still and quiet in the chamber, I usually feel like swearing loudly in Punjabi or clapping and nodding my head when a good point has been made.

After a few charity photos for the MSPs with some silly props and social media posts, I went along to an event ran by “Audacious Women Scotland” at which Alison Johnstone was speaking. The event was entitled “Who do MSPs wish they were?” and that is exactly what Alison spoke about which in her case was Wangari Muta Maathai. Others spoke about everyone from political predecessors to their grandmother and celebrated the achievements of audacious women.

I really identified with them as I think I have been an audacious woman myself in the past and it was great to see that in the past there have been other audacious women who inspired and paved the way for today’s generation.

I was also told to then write a blog for Alison about the event which I did after I took down some striking statistics from a four nations (of the UK) study to be considered and also managed to write a few motions in regards to a study on pre-natal care.

I also went to the budget debate for a while in the afternoon and I was mostly amused by the fact that Willie Rennie had called the Green Party “sandal-wearing, watermelon and lentil munching hippies” so they all wore watermelon stickers on their blazers during the debate. Similarly I heard a story that afternoon about a slave who had been burned alive in the fire which was now part of the bar and it reminded me just how important it is that we pay attention to the history of politics, how it affects the future and why it is so important that we get the black experience to play a role in today’s parliament.

Day Five

I am now nearing the end of my placement and I don’t quite know how I’m feeling about it. Don’t get me wrong, it is an amazing opportunity which I am more than grateful for but I honestly wish I had made more of an impression.

The Green Party were great in the sense that made me feel very welcome and truly a part of the team but I wish I had put myself out there more by creating opportunities for myself rather than merely taking up the ones offered to me.

However, I must say, it has done wonders for my confidence. It is quite something when you sit and eat lunch with the leader of one of the nation’s political parties on a regular basis. This is something which I only realized many people may not have the opportunity to do when my father pointed out how casual this had become for me.

It also reminded me how powerful these people in the canteen are as they sit beside me. When I was in high school and even now, I used to apply unsuccessfully for newspaper placements repeatedly after being ignored but these people are getting newspapers approaching them, these people are talking to the government on a regular basis and genuinely making an impact on policies, these people have decided how to structure something on social media to have it retweeted by thousands of people throughout the country.

When I used to get rejected from work experience placements, I often wondered whether it was because I had “a foreign-sounding name.” Even now, I question my race when I get passed up for an opportunity in favor of a white counterpart and it makes me wonder whether there are people trying to do the same at parliament and politics in general – are they repeatedly trying to contact human resources only to get no response and wonder whether there are young people who are passionate about doing what they want to do and failing to get heard and wondering whether their ethnicity is to “blame.”

I recently heard the phrase “Don’t be the voice for the voiceless, just pass the mic.” I had always been under the impression that the role of both journalism and politics but perhaps I was wrong – maybe we just need to provide the appropriate platform to marginalized communities instead. This is why I think schemes like this are of such importance – they provide that platform that marginalized communities, such as ethnic minorities, need to make the country’s system of governance more reflective of the society which we live in today – which includes ethnic minorities such as myself.

In regards to what I actually, physically did on my fifth day of the scheme, I initially drafted some email responses to constituents on a range of things, I worked on summarizing a campaign and for John Finnie and working out whether he should support it or not, I also worked on social security and covered loneliness, assistive technology, sports funding and more following the Health Committee briefing from the previous week and I also reworked a piece I had written last time slightly from last week’s “Audacious Women” event which will now be published online in the name of Alison Johnstone which was highly commended by the social security researcher who I covered for.

In addition to this, I was also approached by the media team for whom I was told to write a press release from a speech given by Patrick Harvie. It was a generic LGBT+ friendly one from LGBT+ History Month so I had to work hard to find a news angle but eventually managed to find one and after reworking it a little bit, the media team said it was “great” and that they would have more things for me to do next time…

One more day left to make an impression and I truly hope that I do.

P.S. I also went to the weekly team meeting which began in a meeting room, moved to the members room and then ended up in the corridors after an MSP from a different party came in and everyone had to start whispering. It was also one of the team’s birthdays and there was vegan, gluten-free cake baked by someone else and flapjacks from another so if you shadow the green party, try to make sure it’s near someone’s birthday because some of the country’s most powerful people all sit in a circle in the corridor and eat cake.

Day Six

It was my last day at Scottish Parliament! Just when I was beginning to get to know the place, it was time for me to leave.

On this day, I was very interested in going to FMQs as it was likely to be about independence this week and I wrongly presumed that my mentor, Gordon, had secured a ticket for me like he had in the past. However, he said they were all sold out and I regretted not getting in touch with him when the indyref2 news broke out.

Nonetheless, I had a very productive day. I was told to work on a briefing for Andy Wightman in regards to the gender pay gap following the previous Tuesday’s Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee meeting. As this is something which I feel very strongly about, I ended up writing a lot more than I originally intended to – I think it totaled over 10 pages.

This was the second time I was working for Andy Wightman’s office and though I saw him for a little while and had a chat with him last time, I never saw him all day this time. But that’s the life of a politician I suppose - not much time to chat with more important things to do like making sure the country is run properly.

Following the committee work and lunch, I was told to go through some correspondence emails from Higher Modern Studies studnets, which I did despite the fact that some of them were really difficult to answer, such as the Green’s view on the Trump administration’s impact on the UK economy…

I was then asked to do some more correspondence and then some research on solitary confinement or “removal from association” as it is referred to in Scotland, which I found really interesting as there were some shocking statistics, so I think I may do more research into this in the future and perhaps write an article about it.

This took up my afternoon but I asked for more things to do so was told to do the more administrative work of looking at which party member hadn't signed which motions, as I was told that I was working too fast. This concerned me slightly but then I was told that my work was of really great quality so I was reassured that I hadn’t rushed it and made errors or not done it to a high enough standard. This work took me a little while and by the looks of it my mentor, Gordon, was desperate to get home so I wound it up as well, as I could using the excuse I had to catch a train.

My time at Scottish Parliament has been amazing. For someone who is interested in politics, there is no better way to learn more about it and its influence than immersing yourself in the environment and throwing yourself right in the deep end.

The Scottish Green Party, in particular, created a wonderful experience for me as well. They made me fit right in – from sharing birthday cake to asking me to go to the pub with them (which I didn’t go to, because I didn’t want my hard work to go to waste when I said something stupid after a glass of wine) to just remembering my name and spelling it right and checking in with me from time to time to see how I was getting on.

I do have some regrets though including not saying goodbye to all of the team properly (although the ones who left early were nice enough to come to me and personally say goodbye and tell me that I could always contact them and was allowed back at any time!). Another regret is that I didn’t ask the media team for more work as they had said they could rustle something up for me in the future, although I didn’t have time. I also regret not going to the independence FMQs, but that wasn’t a massive issue. Maybe I could have made a better impression through these little things and also by putting myself out there more.

Yet I couldn’t recommend this experience enough to anyone, especially underrepresented groups including BME people, disabled people and LGBT+ people since it’s about time we had a Scottish Parliament that is more reflective of Scottish society.

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