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The British Politicians Canadians Could Learn From

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Politics is often dominated by empty grandstanding, half-truths, and horse-race style politics that have little resonance with the general public. The political process is one that often induces cynicism and disillusionment, especially for those with a strong sense of idealism and public service.

What should politics be about? Or, better phrased, what is politics at its best? At its best, politics is about policy and ideas. In particular substantive ideas aimed at tackling the pressing problems faced by society, whether problems of unemployment and economic stagnation, environmental sustainability, or poverty, among others. Politics, at its best, is about dealing with real concerns, real issues, faced by people, and coming up with substantive solutions aimed at alleviating these problems.

We need elected officials and policy-makers who listen to public concerns, and who have substantive policies aimed at dealing with these concerns. We need facts-based policy, not blind ideology or pure electioneering and pandering. We need the idealism of wanting to make our city, province, country, and world a better place -- to help people -- alongside the pragmatism of devising real and substantive solutions.

We are not seeing this with the Harper Conservatives, where there have been cuts to Environment Canada and the closing of the Experimental Lakes Area research facilities (an important freshwater research network) that speaks to a refusal to listen to the facts and realities of climate change. There is an explicit refusal to give heed to any research that would get in the way of further oil sands development, including the controversial pipeline that would pass through delicate ecosystems in British Columbia.

In the cynical world of political calculation and with the blinding effects of ideology, an emphasis on substantive policies and solutions, on public service, while garnering praise may seem -- at the end of the day -- overly idealistic and even naïve. It should not be.

In the United Kingdom, Labour Party MP - and former Labour Party leadership candidate - David Miliband has been attempting to put the ideals of real solutions to real problems into practice by taking up the issue of youth unemployment. This is a serious issue facing those in the Millennial generation, a problem made worse by global recession -- and worse still in Britain by the Cameron government which has focussed on budget austerity to the detriment of jobs, plunging that country into a double-dip recession.

David Miliband is a well-known figure in British politics. He is a policy-wonk, holding a Masters in Political Science from MIT, having worked at the politically progressive think tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research, and then -- while still in his 20s -- heading up public policy for then-Labour Party leader Tony Blair. Miliband played a key role in writing the manifesto (platform) for Labour's victorious 1997 election campaign.

In 2001, Miliband was elected Member of Parliament and quickly rose to become Britain's Foreign Affairs Secretary (Minister). In 2010 he ran for the Labour Party leadership losing to his brother, Ed Miliband. Since then, Miliband has taken a relatively low profile in Parliament, preferring not to overshadow his brother's leadership.

On youth unemployment, David Miliband has referred to youth facing a tough job market as the "pinched generation" who risk being in an even worse situation if nothing is done to help them. In an interview with the Britain's Guardian newspaper, Miliband stated that, "what you don't want is your unemployed 18-year-old to be an unemployed 22-year-old." Long-term unemployment is demoralizing for those afflicted by it, and represents a loss of human and economic potential.

Miliband has met with youth, at schools and employment centres, listening to their concerns. He has also been on a university tour hosting Q&A sessions.

Miliband has raised the issue of youth unemployment in the British House of Commons, in a recent speech emphasizing the social and economic costs of youth unemployment. Citing calculations from the University of Bristol, this cost for Britain in the last quarter of 2011 was estimated at 30 billion pounds. In his House of Commons speech, Miliband proposed substantive policies to deal with youth unemployment, including the requirement of public contracts over 1 million pounds to offer apprenticeships to youth and having a part-time job guarantee to ensure youth work-experience to prevent youth from slipping into long-term unemployment.

In his speech, Miliband sharply criticized the Cameron government's austerity measures for making an already dire for youth situation worse.

This is politics at its best. Listening to public concerns, tackling real and serious problems faced by society, and coming up with substantive solutions based on a strong facts-based policy process. This is the part of politics that makes one optimistic -- not the scandals or grandstanding -- but a real attempt to deal with a substantive social issue.

Miliband is of course by no means perfect -- he has been criticized for setting up a private company to hold his lucrative earnings from being a lecturer, speaker, and business advisor.

Nonetheless, Miliband's emphasis on youth unemployment is one that is cause for putting aside at least some cynicism. There is a real sense of public service here, of Miliband devoting his deep knowledge of policy to solving a very real problem, to getting outside the bubble of political-insiders and bureaucrats to listen to people's real concerns and devise policy solutions accordingly. This is what politics should be about.