Political Shadowing Scheme - Taiba Shadowing Alison Johnstone MSP
5.30am. My alarm went off and I screamed internally. It was far too early to get up but ever the punctual person I got up and got ready. I made my way to Queen Street for 7.30am, and for once I wasn’t nervous about this new and exciting experience. I’m guessing those two cups of coffee I had before I left had settled me down.
On the train I listened to a podcast and watched the country pass by me and until I finally got to Edinburgh, after obsessively reading the email Richard, a member of Alison Johnstone’s staff, had sent me which had instructions on what to do. I went through security - how I wished I was going through security at the airport, but I guess getting to experience Scottish politics first hand was a close second.
Richard came to get me and after that the day was pretty much a blur. I met so many people throughout the day, and if I’m honest I don’t quite remember everyone’s names, but everyone was friendly, and I knew from them on I was going to enjoy myself. Fifteen minutes into my first day and Richard took me to committee meeting where I sat for 2 hours as MSPs questioned the Scottish Health Council (something I didn’t know existed, and from what was going on in the room nor did many of the MSPs prior to this, even one that used to be a nurse!) and then discussed the Scottish Government’s revised national outcomes on health.
The 2 hours flew by then Dan, another one of Alison’s staffers, came and picked me up. Richard then asked me to write up a motion on the rise of foodbank use - my first challenge. I spent ages uming and ahing over it before Kieran, who worked for another MSP asked if I wanted to join the rest of the team for lunch where I got to meet the other Green MSP staffers and Ross, an MSP.
I was then whisked away to a party meeting where Patrick Harvie went over the agenda for the next couple of weeks, and I finally got to introduce myself to everyone. There were sweets being passed around, I could definitely get used to this. The joint party group on sexual harassment came in to talk to us for a bit and I got to hear how the Parliament were tackling this serious issue, especially in the wake of the Me Too campaign.
I then got to work on my motion, which Dan helped me to tweak, but I got there in the end. With the cake flowing (I heard from Alison there’s always cake) I got to watch Alison at work in the chamber discussing child care along with many other MSPs from her office. I then met Roseannah who gave me the task to research about the paediatrician shortage in Scotland and start up a motion on child health care. It’s safe to say they kept me busy!
5.15pm. After asking Richard to show me out (the Parliament building still confused me and my lack of direction didn’t help the matter) I was on my way onto the sunny streets of Edinburgh ready to go back to a rather rainy Glasgow. The train journey gave me a chance to reflect on my jam-packed day and wonder what’s in store for me over the next few weeks.
Another day, another morning commute to Edinburgh. Today I felt much more at ease, even with a shoe mishap; thankfully, nothing a quick trip to Boots to buy some plasters couldn’t fix! I started off the day finishing up a motion and some background notes I had started the previous day. I didn’t feel so out of depth this time, especially since Dan was kind enough to go over the first motion with me and gave me a few handy tips. I also got the chance to work on some press releases for Alison. Richard explained to me that because Alison is a regional MSP that she often has to release 3 variations of a single press release to make it applicable to each constituency within her regional seat.
One of my less glamorous jobs was to go through a bundle of newspapers and cut out the sections that had pieces regarding the Green MSPs and the issues they had a vested interest in. It gave me the chance to learn more about the campaigns that Alison had been involved in and see the changes she helped enact. I, happily, flicked through the numerous papers whilst FMQs was playing in the background. Alison mentioned they would try to get me a ticket for next week, so I could see the action in person!
Alison, then, took me to cross-party group which looked at fuel poverty prevention strategies. I was a bit hesitant at first about it but hearing the speakers talk and some of the stories they relayed broke my heart. We often forget that there are people out there that aren’t as fortunate as us, and the Green Party, in particular, wants to make sure that Scotland is fairer and healthier place. We all have the responsibility to make sure that this country is a place where no one is left behind and that we all prosper.
I got the chance to help reply to some emails that Alison’s constituents had sent regarding several issues. I got to see the kind of issues that come up on a day to day basis and the solutions that there are for them. I then got the chance to see one of the many photo opportunities that MSPs get involved in to promote certain issues and causes. This one was about the 100-year anniversary of women getting the vote. I was asked if wanted to take a picture too. I didn’t expect them to ask, but I felt a little shy so declined.
Dan also got some very interesting casework about certain benefits that will soon fall under the discretion of the Scottish Parliament and the implications this will have, and how it related to the Social Security Bill that he had been working on with Alison for the past few months. This is what I found most interesting about my experience so far: the real-life implications and problems that MSPs have to deal with and solve. We often forget how much politics touches every aspect of people’s lives and how politicians have the chance to create real change: be it eradicate fuel poverty, help people claim benefits that they are so rightly entitled to or just provide a person with the support they need.
After enjoying the sunshine and the confusion from security, which had me panic emailing Richard, I finally got into Parliament and to the Green offices. Richard told me that there’s normally a hawk outside by the window I sit by…. How did I not notice? He said I could go outside and hold it next time it’s out! I wish I was joking when I said I was very excited for this; I mean, it’s not every day you see a hawk!
I finished working on the emails I was sent last week, but Alison had back-to-back meetings all day, so I never got the chance to run the responses by her and ask her how else she’d like to respond. Richard then asked me to go through the many, many emails I had in my inbox, which were mostly asking for support for motions, and see what motions Alison could give her support for. This gave me the opportunity to see what other MSPs are supporting and campaigning for. I noticed there was a lot of to-and-fro happening on certain issues. A motion on the Palestinian conflict from another Green MSP was not taken well by a Conservative MSP it seems. I made my list and the satisfaction of being able to delete several hundred emails was second to none.
There was another group meeting where Patrick went over the agenda for the next few weeks, and briefly spoke about the Trump visit. The atmosphere was jovial and laidback, and made me feel like I had made the right decision on my party choice. Other than sharing my political views with the Scottish Greens, I feel like their energy and enthusiasm is something the other parties lack and something I believe needs to be more prevalent in Scottish politics.
Dan then had me working on questions that Alison could ask during her Social Security Committee this coming Thursday. Forty pages on the Best Start Grant, which would be replacing another benefit and Dan, an expert in the field, told me that he was struggling with some sections. What hope did I have? Persevering and using my four years of experience reading long, rather complex texts for classes I muddled through. I made notes on issues that I thought Alison could flag up and sent them along to Dan.
It had been a long day that involved a lot of reading, but the day wasn’t over yet. Dan had me go over all the areas I had covered over my last few days and come up with questions for Alison to ask Ministers. I was unsure of what I wanted to cover so made notes on everything and had Dan help me narrow down to benefit uptake, and the campaign the parliament had run on this issue. He helped me with phrasing and showed me how to look up previous questions other MSPs had asked in the past, so I wasn’t asking the same question. All in all, an interesting enough day. I feel less uneasy, maybe even a bit confident about my work. I’ve started to get into the flow of things and see the breadth of activities that happen every day in Parliament, though no two days are ever the same.
Day four was a whirlwind that had me traipsing all over. I came in earlier than usual, so I could sit in on Alison’s Social Security committee looking at the Best Start Grant. For once during a committee meeting I fully understood what was going on and what was being discussed, thanks to all the preparation Dan and I had done on the previous day. Every other committee meeting made me feel like I had went into a lecture unprepared. But today, I knew the policy, I knew some of the ins and outs, and the complexities of it, and I knew the issues that the Greens and (if I’m honest) I had with the policy. Even as someone just shadowing Alison, I felt like I had a vested interest in it. As if it was MY party that was trying to solve the social ills of today. The past few shadowing days have made me realise the importance of policy-making and how it can help people, or even fail them. I imagine this is how many MSPs and their staffers feel. I could especially see the passion Dan had for it, and it made me feel so passionately about it too!
After a quick two hours, and pages of notes, I headed back to the office to work on some tasks I hadn’t quite finished the previous day. Then it was FMQs time. I know FMQs was set up in a way to be different from PMQs. To show a more collaborative kind of politics, hence why there was a proportional representation system in place for its elections. However, I feel like, as an avid watched of FMQs over the years, it has become very partisan and much more like PMQs than it first set out to be. It was loud, there was jeering, mostly from the SNP and Conservatives, but it was exciting to see it in person.
Richard then invited me out to go out for lunch since they needed to pick up Ian’s (a member of staff whose last day was today) leaving presents. It was nice to be out the Parliament and get some fresh air. The sun was shining, and we made our way through the bustling streets of Edinburgh. Soon it was 2pm so we headed back, enjoying the spring sunshine along the way.
I finally got to do some work, after running around all day. I worked on some notes for an event with the British Veterinary Association that Alison had next Tuesday, so she was prepped and could see overlaps between their policies and that of the Scottish Greens. I then went over a couple of tasks that had been piling up that I needed Alison’s help with, including responses to many emails. Then there was cake - how could I be so naïve and think there wasn’t any cake today? We all came together and ate cake as we wished Ian a farewell. The day flew by so quickly I hadn’t even noticed. Today I felt more part of the team; I feel like their work is my work. Every task I do is for some greater good, to create a better country for us all to live in. Their ethos and passion shows through all their work. They really care and want to better Scotland for us all and (without trying to sound like a party political broadcast for the Scottish Greens) I urge everyone to really look at what they have to offer and their vision for a better, sustainable Scotland.
I felt very strange this morning knowing this was my second last day at Parliament. I had become so used to waking up at 5.30am and making that journey from Glasgow to Edinburgh and then spending 8 hours fully immersed in Scottish politics. I felt like I had been doing this for months, not just a few days. I knew on Thursday (my last day) I would feel a little sad leaving the Greens and my little desk, but that was a problem for Thursday.
Most of my day was spent in front of a computer reading, researching and writing. I quickly wrote up a briefing on a report that compared healthcare statistics of the UK to a number of other countries and some of the results were striking. The NHS is such an amazing institution, but it’s one that’s underfunded, understaffed and overstretched. It was suggested to me that since the report was a UK wide report that it would be a good idea to find out what implications this could have on Scotland, so I emailed SPICe and the author of the report to find out more. I was curious as to whether Scotland was faring better than the other nations in the UK as health is a devolved issue or whether we could learn from our neighbours. I then penned a quick motion on the same report and sent them both across to Roseannah to have a look over.
Dan also gave me a tour of the chamber (finally!). He had some interesting facts and I got to see where all the action happened. It was very surreal being in the chamber and not just seeing it on the TV or from the gallery; it felt like somewhere important, where big decisions were made and where important people had stood. My favourite part was the stone outside from the original parliament; I like how it connected the new Parliament to its past and showed how far Scotland had come since the Act of the Union in 1707 (and hopefully one day the Scottish Parliament will become our only Parliament once again).
After a quick lunch at my desk, it was group meeting time. The atmosphere was much more sombre as they discussed the recent events in Palestine and how best to condemn the actions of Israel and help the Palestinian people, especially on the anniversary of Nakbah. We also discussed the EU Withdrawal Bill - this was the big thing in Parliament today, so everyone wanted to make sure they knew what was going on. The meeting was a quick one today, so I got back and carried on with my depleting pile of work. I drafted up a quick response to a constituent who had concerns over Minimum Unit Pricing and the Soft Drinks Industry Levy. I used to struggle with tasks like this on my first few days, but practice really does make perfect (well maybe not perfect but at least I’m not spending two hours to find the right words to start a response anymore!).
Roseannah then gave me the chance to help with a speech for Alison on perinatal mental health care. I was a little hesitant at first but Roseannah put me at ease and told me not to overthink it and that even a few notes could be helpful, especially since Alison wasn’t completely sure whether she was actually going to speak. I spent my last few hours just researching and trying to make my notes look less like organised chaos and then before I knew it, it was 5pm! Another day flew by and I barely noticed.
Today was the inevitable last day. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time shadowing Alison and working with the Greens over the past three weeks. By the end, I even felt like I was part of the team. I’m glad they suggested three consecutive weeks because I feel like the continuity made my experience more enjoyable and it made it easier to get to know the team. Anyway, I thought I’d use my last 500(ish) words to reflect over my time in Parliament and look more in depth into the issue of diversity in Scottish politics.
We mustn’t lie to ourselves, diversity within Scottish politics is very lacking. There are only two MSPs from ethnic minority backgrounds. Both male. Since the inauguration of Parliament in 1999 there have only been 4 MSPs from a BAME background, again, all male. What stops people of this background from pursuing a career in politics? For female representation, following the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary election, only 34.9% of MSPs were female (a grand total of 45). Since 1999, no more than 39.5% of our MSPs have been female, yet they make up 51% of the population. I remember during my interview for CRER I was asked why I applied and the answer was simple: It is very rare to see someone like me in politics. I decided at the age of 16 that I wanted to study politics at university and that’s exactly what I went on to do.
However, I’ve noticed during my last 4 years that often I’m the only person of colour in class; it shouldn’t make a difference to me, but it does. If I see someone else of a BAME background I do feel like maybe I didn’t make the wrong decision, that politics is a space that’s open for someone like me. I enjoy politics; in school I was pushed by my Modern Studies teacher to pursue my dreams and he taught me that I could go onto achieve whatever I wanted and that there were no barriers I couldn’t overcome (he even jokingly wrote in my yearbook to remember him in the future and make him an advisor when I finally achieved my domination). But being in the real world and seeing who inhabits these spaces and positions of power, I feel that perhaps Mr Grimes underestimated what I would have to overcome to even get my foot in the door.
My time in Parliament has been one I won’t forget anytime soon. The work they do is very varied. I was lucky enough to get the chance to do a bit of everything. I was given the opportunity to write up motions, prepare some notes for a speech, draft replies to constituents, attend committee meetings, amongst a variety of other jobs. I felt like a struggled a lot when I first started and that I had no idea what I was doing. But whenever I had a question someone was always there to give me a helping hand. The thing I enjoyed the most was how well the team got on. The Greens are a small party (only in number, not in passion or drive) but this had its benefits. You knew who everyone was, and the atmosphere was always pleasant and jovial (even if the Lib Dems didn’t appreciate this, I still maintain this is due to their lack of cake).
I, keeping up with tradition, brought in cake. I was hoping to leave with a good impression and if there’s cake involved I was hoping they would remember me well - that’s how it works right? Bribe them with cake and all will be well? I feel as though this blog post has turned into an ode to cake rather than politics, but I digress. I had only been there for 6 days, but the experience has left a lasting impression on me. I even went home and joined the Green Party! I’m so grateful to everyone who even stopped to say hello and introduce themselves and made me feel so welcome, and I’m indebted to Alison for giving me the opportunity. I couldn’t have worked with a better group of people and will be eternally thankful to them all for that they’ve taught me, for challenging me and for all their kind words.
So, what have I learned over my last 6 days of shadowing? Everyone is always busy. Everyone is always running somewhere to do something or meet someone important. They get a lot of emails, and I mean a LOT (I’ll be eternally grateful to never see another email asking for support on a motion). And the Greens really love their cake (they prefer chocolate over carrot cake, FYI). (Also, to the Greens social media team, in case you ever read this, I did promise I never said anything defamatory, please don’t sue me).