The 6th Commonwealth Youth Parliament, organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, titled “Deepening the Commonwealth’s Commitment to Democracy and Youth Development” was held in Mmabatho, in the rural provincial North West legislature in South Africa, in November 2014. Before I left, Andrew Tuggey, Chief Executive of CPA UK, told me to expect little sleep if I wanted to make the most of it. I thought he was exaggerating, that we would sit in the chamber for a couple of hours a day and the rest of the time would be spent exploring South Africa. I must find the time to tell him he was right. From the outset we were given a heavy timetable, full of talks, party caucusing, oral questions, 10 minute rule bills, opposition motions and general debates.
The idea of the Youth Parliament is to take a group of young people (aged 18-29) and put them with other young people from far flung countries. By the end you realise that because of the Commonwealth, most of you enjoy the same Westminster model with a bicameral legislature, a Speaker, whips, and pretty similar House etiquette. I could, save the varying accents, have been in a Chamber full of British youth for the similarities in our understanding of parliamentary procedure. This, to me, was the beauty of the Youth Parliament: the understanding that all 53 nations in the Commonwealth are bound not only by history, but by political structure.
On the first day, we were put into party groups according to our preference - The Young Democratic Party or the Progressive Youth Alliance. I was in the latter. We then, having just met, had to elect a leader, deputy leader and front bench. I, thinking I understood party politics sufficiently, volunteered myself for the position of party leader for the Progressive Youth Alliance (the opposition party). We elected a deputy from Pakistan, chief whip from the Isle of Man, an employment minister from South Africa and an education minister from Trinidad and Tobago. It was probably the most multicultural front bench I have ever seen. We had a free evening that night but it was spent preparing oral questions, deciding an opposition motion and forcing backbenchers to table 10 minute rule bills.
What I did learn from my short stint as party leader is how difficult it is to keep people together. Even though there were only some fourteen of us in the party, people wanted to vote different ways, the deputy kept on making representations on behalf of the party without consulting anyone, backbenchers got upset when they weren’t included in strategic meetings, and the employment minister resigned when I gently told her that she hadn’t understood the purpose of a Committee Session. I had to then persuade her to revoke her resignation before anyone found out and there was a scandal. I discovered a new-found sympathy for leaders of opposition parties, particularly in my home country, as I understood that party politics is an attempt to take strong-minded individuals and get them to vote, if not think, as a bloc. Negotiations were rife with the independent members and I got a sense of Cameron and Clegg in 2010 and an understanding of the importance of minority parties. We overthrew the government in a vote of no confidence and I got a sense of Margaret Thatcher vs James Callaghan in 1979.
Besides finally understanding the role of the party machine and the parliamentary machine, and learning the vast importance of the legacy of the Commonwealth, I also got to experience the hospitality of the North West Legislature in South Africa. They made an incomparable effort to make us feel welcome and safe, police escort notwithstanding, and I got to see another beautiful puzzle piece of the Commonwealth. I have now made it my personal mission to complete the puzzle with my new network of Youth Parliamentarians from around the globe.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.