My first day of shadowing took place in an area of my MSP, Iain Gray’s constituency as there is currently a by-election taking place for the replacement of one local councillor seat after the previous councillor resigned. Therefore, I took part in campaigning activities that included leafleting for a local village, overseeing the filming of promotional material, and door knocking to gage support for the Labour councillor candidate.
This day of shadowing altered and confirmed some of my ideas around politics in a number of different ways. Before undergoing shadowing I was aware of the grassroots support and effort that is undertaken to help get people voted into positions of power, and this was only further demonstrated throughout the day. I had a chance to speak to many different members of the local community, some who work directly for Iain and the Labour Party and some who did not, that were all invested in putting in the time and manpower needed to raise awareness of their candidate and even the election in general. The hard work of people who I met served as a reminder to me that while politics, especially in the media, is presented as a large scale and official role, it would not be at all possible without the volunteering and time of local members who know their communities and put in the time to promote the causes they care about.
When undertaking door knocking I met a number of local residents that increased my understanding of local opinions to state wide actions. This is no more clearly seen than with Brexit negotiations going on currently, along with issues of independence in Scotland that are still at the forefront of many people’s minds. We met many people who felt fed up and disillusioned by all parties and politics in general and therefore said that they would not be voting in upcoming elections. This idea of total disenfranchisement was interesting and disheartening to see firsthand but also demonstrates the inability of many in government to relate to local issues and actually listen and inform the people that they are supposed to be representing.
Race did not play a significant role in the campaigning; this area of Scotland has a predominantly white population and I did not encounter any people either campaigners, or members of the public, who were concerned with race or issues of racial equality. However there was one member of the public who I encountered when door knocking who said she felt completely disillusioned and would not be voting due to a member of her extended family being deported back to Canada with only seven days notice. This highlighted the issue of the continuing lack of equality for immigrants who are unable to live securely even after years working and living in the UK.
This day of shadowing therefore helped me to better understand how local politics operates on a day to day basis and how statewide issues still have a huge impact on the lives of local residents and their relationship with their representatives.
On my second day of shadowing I was working from Scottish Parliament for the first time. This was an exciting experience for me as I had the opportunity to see firsthand the work that is done in Parliament and the way in which it operates. One of Iain’s office members, Barry, was kind enough to give me a tour of some new areas of Parliament that I had not seen before. This included seeing the Labour offices on the first floor and the great view from the SNP offices on their corridor at the top! I also enjoyed learning more about the history of the parliament and the way in which its rooms and other aspects honour this history. Everyone in the offices of Iain Gray, and his next door neighbour, Kezia Dugdale were really friendly and it was great seeing firsthand the community vibe of Parliament, where everyone is welcomed and respected.
I was able to sit-in on a meeting that Iain had with the Independent Care Review, a Scottish organisation that is undergoing a four year program to find areas where the care system can be improved to work better for those it serves. This meeting took place halfway through their research project and I was able to get a glimpse into the findings that they have about the care system in Scotland and what measures need to be taken to make it more effective. I found this meeting really inspiring as it demonstrated the work that they are doing to try to change the whole culture of care and the way it is viewed in society. The implementation of these ideas into government policy was also a topic of discussion that I found thought-provoking as Iain discussed how best the ideas could be implemented by MSPs and the Scottish government as a whole to ensure the best course of action is taken. Iain and his office sought to approach the issues identified by the Care Review in a way that would be bipartisan and ensure the important changes needed would not be resisted by different parties in an attempt to gain a political advantage. The nature of politics as it stands currently means that in Parliament, not just in Scotland, sometimes changes that need to be made to improve society as a whole are not implemented as soon as they could be due to political hostility between parties preventing cooperation. Therefore, I found it encouraging to see firsthand the attempts to ensure real change was not politicised.
During my third day I attended an Education Committee meeting, of which Iain is a part. I found this meeting really interesting as I saw firsthand the discussion that had been taking place around subject choices for high school students. The discussion centered around gathering information from representatives of both the parents and the schools and I learnt a lot about the way in which information is acquired by the Parliament and how MSPs from all parties are able to ask questions to gage the success of policy that has been put in place recently. I also took part in some research back at the office around this subject which demonstrated the time and manpower needed for each MSP to have the relevant information they need. In this case as a member of the opposition, to pose questions to the government about their policy choices and how to improve current education systems.
After this I was tasked with doing some research around current government policy on funding for EU students after Brexit. This was a fairly difficult task to undertake as there is a lot of uncertainty around the nature of Brexit and what kind of deal the UK will get when (if) it happens. This task therefore showed that while the Scottish government does have a significant amount of devolved power, there are still many issues in which they do not have much influence or knowledge on what is happening.
Towards the end of the day I had the chance to watch some of Iain’s speech in the education questions. This was a rewarding experience as I had seen earlier in the day the work that goes into researching and writing his speech, demonstrating the fact that the public only see a small amount of the work that is constantly being undertaken behind the scenes.
My next day of shadowing took place a couple of weeks later and Iain had a speech this day on the subject of Foster Care Fortnight for 2019. I was involved in gathering information for this speech and helping to transform it into some of the speech. This was a rewarding task as I was able to see Iain give his speech later in the day and therefore see my direct contribution to his work. The day-to-day researching of information was something that surprised me about the work being done in Parliament; I had not previously considered the fact that each MSP only has a few members of staff that work for them directly, and that they need a grasp of broad swathes of information on many different topics, meaning a lot of work and manpower is used on finding and analysing this information.
During my lunch break I also attended a short meeting by the BAME Network intended to provide information about Ramadan. This meeting was a great chance for non-muslim people to inform themselves about Ramadan, what it means and what it entails. The meeting was open to everyone in Parliament and there were many people from all different departments who attended. I really enjoyed this session as I learnt a lot about Ramadan, especially the reasons for why people fast and what else is done during this period, such as giving to charity and making a conscious effort to be kind and giving to others. Many people asked questions about how best to support their colleagues during this time, which helped further my understanding about the physical difficulty of fasting (especially in hot weather) and how to help people who are fasting. The meeting had a friendly, informative and warm environment that demonstrated to me the continued attempts by many people to make Scottish Parliament an inclusive and welcoming workplace.
Later in the day I helped Barry (from Iain’s office) with work on cataloguing data from responses to Freedom of Information requests. These centered around the cost of school lunches but I learnt a lot, more generally about the way in which Freedom of Information works in Parliament, as anyone can request information that is catalogued by the government.
I also wrote some social media posts for Iain’s facebook page to inform his followers of the questions he had raised in the Education Committee meetings, and what responses he had gained. This demonstrated to me an interesting difference between the limited amounts of information that is able to be presented and broadcast to people on social media about what an MSP has been doing, in comparison to the extensive behind-the-scenes work that is done.
My last day of shadowing was bittersweet. I am so grateful for the opportunity to take part in such a fascinating and insightful experience, yet I was sad that it had come to an end. I have learnt a lot from this experience about both the practical aspects of working in Parliament, as well as the way in which work is done and the workplace environment.
A key takeaway that I have is the open and friendly nature of Scottish Parliament, both for me as a member of an MSP’s office, and also for the many visitors and guests that I saw throughout my period there. On my last day I had a discussion with Iain about my reflections and we discussed the idea that people in the Parliament, especially the MSPs are easier to reach than most people would think. This was confirmed by my ideas, as before this shadowing I did not think it would be so simple to discuss issues and ideas with people working in Parliament! Yet, I attended many meetings with different organisations and charities about the work they are doing and how it can best be supported by those in government. This was a particularly heartening aspect of my reflections.
While I was in Parliament the particular areas of discussion were free music tuition for children and the narrowing of subject choices for secondary school pupils. Throughout my time shadowing I learnt that one particular issue can dominate the discussions and debate across all parties for a significant amount of time. The issues of interest were both areas that Iain is heavily involved in which meant a lot of research and meetings across parties to discuss the actions taken by the government and in what way they could be improved/counteracted. It also included a lot of cross party discussion which I saw clearly in Committee meetings and cross party groups. I learnt that the work that is undertaken by MSPs is hugely broad and while there is often a lot of specificity, there is also a huge amount of variation due to the many different issues that MSPs have to tackle in different areas such as education and healthcare.
Overall, this has been an amazing experience for me, learning about all aspects of working in Parliament and what that entails. I would like to say a huge thank you to Iain and Barry for being such kind mentors and welcoming me into their office and their work for these five days!