Today, Seema Malhotra (Labour and Cooperative MP for Feltham and Heston) was delighted to speak to students at the inauguration of Cranford Community School‘s new Parliament.
The text of Seema’s speech ran as follows:
“Thank you very much Chair.
It is my very great pleasure to join you to inaugurate the Cranford Parliament.
Let me start by congratulating you on this initiative and I am looking forward to watching your democracy grow.
Our democracy today is the product of thousands of years of development, argument and negotiation about where power lies, who has the authority to make decisions and how we make the laws by which we live.
In taking on your roles as Members of the Cranford Parliament, you are taking on an honour and a responsibility.
Election is not just about power, it’s about service.
Your will have stood for election because you want to change things for the better.
Indeed it’s a strong and vibrant democracy that involves all communities that is vital in order to make decisions together that become the rule of law.
How well you do, how hard you work, how much you achieve will set the tone and the expectations around Cranford Parliament for the future.
From all I have seen and heard, the future will defy all expectations.
When I first got interested in politics I was around 8 years old.
I was at the age when you start really asking questions about why things are as they are.
I started arguing – constructively I might add – with my parents. Sometimes I won, sometimes I didn’t.
Making the argument for what needs to be different and negotiating with others – you are never too young or too old to learn these fundamentals of public decision making.
When I stood in Heston primary school elections in 1983 arguing for better pensions for the elderly I never expected that 30 years later I would be continuing those arguments in Houses of Parliament and much more besides.
Political life is not easy.
Learning to deal with and respect different points of view, doing your research, challenging the basis on which decisions are made, arguing your case for an alternative, holding power to account – these are just some of what an MP does.
When I joined the Labour Party I was aged 17 and at the Green School.
I was involved in a whole range of campaigns – Friends of the Earth, Global Poverty, Anti-Apartheid, Amnesty International and so much more.
But I came to realise that it wasn’t enough for me to just want to influence the decision makers. I wanted to be part of the democratic process that makes the decisions too.
Community activism, campaigning, voting, standing for election, having the freedom to express your views are all aspects of our democracy I believe we must nurture and protect.
How we make decisions and who makes decisions can change – i.e. who has power and authority.
Powers for students and for teachers are what you have debated here in Cranford and how are taking forward with your Parliament.
On a bigger scale, and particularly through the lens of Brexit, we are debating the balance of powers of Westminster, Scottish Parliament, assemblies and local Mayors in what is decided in terms of our Deal, and who gets to have a say and how.
Within Whitehall as well, the trade-offs between departments like the Department for Environment, Home Office, Foreign Office, Treasury, Business Energy and Industrial Strategy on what’s right for our country and economy will continue to be the questions we grapple with in the Chamber and in our Select Committees.
You may have noticed in recent news coverage that I submitted a Freedom of Information Request to ask the Government to publish its economic impact assessments of Brexit but they have refused stating the will of Parliament and the public interest. This week I will use new routes through Parliamentary channels to put pressure on if Government and challenge its decision.
So one tip – if you want to achieve an outcome, don’t take no for an answer.
And second tip – be entrepreneurial in how you campaign.
Now many people are cynical about our democracy but I believe strongly that our democracy is what keeps our country stable.
We debate the great issues of the day such as wars, earthquakes and public services.
We debate issues such as local schools, hospitals and roads.
We sit in committees like the ones you’re starting, and look at issues in detail.
But no parliament is just a debating club. It’s about more than talking.
Let me give you one example.
We all know and love the National Health Service. We rely on being able to use our local doctor and our local hospital, free at the point of need.
You don’t need to be rich to use the hospital, and that’s thanks to Parliament.
The NHS exists because Parliament voted it into existence. Not everyone agreed. There was a fierce debate about whether to have a free national health service or not.
But Parliament passed a law by 337 votes to 178, and the NHS was born in 1948.
Next year we will celebrate 70 years of our NHS, and thank those 337 MPs who voted to give us all healthcare as a right.
Let me say a few things about Democracy.
What is Democracy? The word Democracy comes from two Greek words: Demos means ‘the people’ and ‘kratia’ means ‘power’ or ‘rule’.
So democracy means rule by the people.
Abraham Lincoln was an American President I am sure you have heard of who gave a speech on a battlefield in the American Civil War.
His side in the civil war was fighting for the United States to be a democracy, and to free the slaves who worked in the fields and factories. He said democracy was government:
Of the people
By the people
For the people.
The fact that thousands were engaged in a devastating civil war over an idea like democracy raises another important point:
Democracy is a precious thing, and over the centuries people have been willing to fight and die for it.
In the Nineteenth Century, people fought to get the vote. In 1819 in Manchester, a crowd of 80,000 gathered to demand the vote, and soldiers on horses rode into them and 15 were killed, many more injured.
In the 1840s, a group called the Chartists demanded the vote for all men.
They wanted each vote to count equally, for your vote to be secret so no-one could know how you voted, for MPs to be paid, so poor people could do the job as well as rich people, and they wanted an election every year.
Over time, the Chartists’ demands have been met, except the last one, that there should be an election every year – though with current politics we are not that far off!
And what about women?
The Suffragettes demanded votes for women. They were persecuted, imprisoned and one, Emily Wilding Davidson died when she threw herself under the king’s horse at the horse racing at Epsom. She hid in the House of Commons on the census night in 1911 and there is a plaque there in her memory.
In 1918, after the end of the First World War, some women got the vote. Next year we will celebrate the centenary of women voting in Britain.
But even in 1918, it was only women over 30 years old.
In 1928, Parliament finally voted to give all women over 21 the right to vote.
One of the leaders of the campaign to get votes for women is going to have a statue built in Parliament Square.
There are statues of Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, but so far no women!
Millicent Fawcett will be the first woman to get a statue in Parliament Square and I am proud to have been part of that campaign.
One of the most important roles of Parliament is scrutiny, and holding the powerful to account for their decisions. We do that in different ways.
At Westminster, we have Prime Minister’s Questions every week, when MPs can ask the Prime Minister about important issues.
Each Cabinet Minister and their team must answer questions in Parliament every five weeks.
We have select committees covering all the important issues like health or education, and these committees can call powerful people to give evidence and explain themselves.
We have a shadow front bench, with shadow ministers offering an alternative to what the Government is doing, and scrutinising every move ministers make.
I have served as a Shadow Home Office Minister and more recently as a shadow Treasury minister, keeping an eye on the ministers’ handling of the economy and how they spend our money.
I am currently elected to serve on the Select committee for Exiting the European Union where we scrutinise the Government’s plans for leaving the EU.
So Parliament isn’t just a building. Democracy isn’t just an idea. It all has to be brought to life by active citizens taking part, joining in, and holding people to account.
Now is this a perfect system? Our Westminster system isn’t perfect. Some people say our system of voting can be improved.
In the last election the amount of people coming out to vote was the highest for 25 years.
But three out of ten people who could vote, didn’t.
Some people think that if you’re 16 you should get the vote, and not have to wait until you’re 18.
Who thinks votes for 16 year-olds is a good idea?
Many people think there should be more women MPs, and more MPs from minority and ethnic backgrounds.
That would mean that our Parliament looks and sounds more like our modern society.
But as you move forward here’s my three pieces of advice:
Don’t make Parliament a talking shop – achieve the change you want to see.
Make democracy real – and value your vote.
And be an active citizen, and encourage others to do so too.
This is a wonderful opportunity to learn about parliamentary systems, about voting and representation and about political life.
Everyone involved deserves huge congratulations.
Though a word of warning.
Once you unleash democracy, it is a powerful and uncontrollable force. It may take you in unexpected directions. It may surprise you.
But be confident in your Parliament and your connection with your constituents.
Take some risks. Aim High. Think big.
Let the power of democracy work its course.
Let the people decide and use the power of your Parliament to improve education and life chances for all your fellow pupils.
I mentioned Winston Churchill earlier. I’ll finish with a quote by the former Prime Minister. It is something to always bear in mind:
‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others’.
Thankyou – I wish you all every success and we in the community look forward to being part of your journey with you.”