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Exercise your right to vote - and make sure your voice is heard

The results of this year's elections to the Scottish Parliament and local councils will be more unpredictable than ever, with a resurgent SNP chasing Labour hard and a new proportional voting system for the 32 councils.

Education will be a key battleground and first-time voters will be a crucial constituency for politicians.

In the 2003 Scottish parliamentary elections, only 42 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted, compared to 49 per cent of the population as a whole.

Kicking off The TESS coverage this week, Henry Hepburn talks to some of those young people to discover whether that might change

Aileen Macrae, 19, is heavily involved in youth politics, yet is not registered to vote this May. She feels none of the parties has done enough to get her vote.

The former pupil at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway is involved in Highland Youth Voice, the regional youth parliament, and has looked at what the parties are offering.

Miss Macrae, who lives in Inverness and is studying health and social care with the Open University, has been homeless twice and believes the parties should be concentrating more on immediate social issues such as housing, rather than the environment, having not been convinced by the scientific consensus on global warming.

She feels Scotland and England have "completely different cultures", with people north of the border having more of an affinity with Ireland. She has been bemused by apparent English resentment at the likelihood of Chancellor Brown from Scotland becoming Prime Minister, and wonders how voters south of the border can reconcile this with enthusiasm for the union. "I like the idea of an independent Scotland," she says.

Miss Macrae was not impressed with the SNP's opposition to the proposed transfer of housing stock into private hands, a proposal defeated in a poll of Highland council residents in November: "I'm blaming them for the fact that the council is still my landlord."

She has a straightforward answer of how to get more young people interested in politics: reduce the voting age to 16.

Sunny Moodie, 19, a former pupil at Dingwall Academy, is more interested in politics than most teenagers: in May, he could become Scotland's young-est councillor.

Mr Moodie is standing as a Labour candidate in Tain and Easter Ross in the council elections. Even if elected, he plans to take up a place studying sustainable development at St Andrew's University this autumn.

He developed a passion for politics through involvement with Highland Youth Voice, the regional youth parliament. He was inspired to take part by a touring presentation that explained how the project would give young people more say in the issues that affected them. "You're not always encouraged to give your own view on how things are run," he explains.

The reaction from peers to his candidature has been largely supportive, notwithstanding a few queries of "Aren't you a bit young?" He believes the way to get more young people interested in politics is to give them more influence and show that democracy does not begin and end at the ballot box.

In practice, he says, this could mean having more sway in choosing which subjects to study at school or electing class representatives to a pupil body with some clout in decision-making.

He believes that proportional representation would be more appealing - because "every vote matters" - and that young people are put off voting by "unscrupulous politicians", while stressing that the media have a habit of misrepresenting the truth.

If elected, Mr Moodie hopes to become closely involved in sustainable development at Highland Council, so he can put the theory behind his university studies into practice, while simultaneously gaining practical experience to help his academic career.

Alix McLaren, 18, a hair and beauty student at Dundee College, has strong views about the war in Iraq, yet is unlikely to vote.

Miss McLaren's father is in the RAF and she has several friends who have served in Iraq. She is confident that protesting against the war through the ballot box could have an impact. Yet she feels that she does not know enough about what each political party is offering in order to vote. And, with May 3 fast approaching, she does not think she will have time to inform herself.

From what she has picked up, she has not been impressed by any of the parties' handling of the Iraq issue. She is frustrated at the criticism by Iraqis of British involvement in the country, since those in the services have no choice about being there.

Miss McLaren, from Leuchars, believes that her lack of knowledge about politics is common among her peers. She has not ruled out voting, however.

When she received a letter saying she was eligible to vote, she barely gave it a second glance; her mother has underlined the importance of voting and urged her to.

Nicole Jamieson, a sixth year pupil at Springburn Academy in Glasgow, is taking the elections very seriously - to the bemusement of her friends. She reads the newspapers and makes sure she watches the news every night, so that she can go to the ballot box well informed.

Miss Jamieson, 18, is weighing up a few options for continuing her studies at university this autumn. She is interested in business and politics and, after a recent visit to the Scottish Parliament, is considering a career in politics, where she feels she could "make a difference" and revel in the cut and thrust of parliamentary politics. "It's not all fun and games: it's serious; you could be famous one day and be resigning the next."

She is not convinced about lowering the voting age to 16, as she is not sure whether those so young would be mature enough to grapple with political issues. She believes more pupils would be interested in politics if they took modern studies to Higher - as she did - which would allow them to study current affairs in greater depth.

Miss Jamieson be-lieves the onus is on politicians to explain to young people why they should be interested in the work of governments and authorities, and that they should visit schools to do so. She does not think she will make up her mind about who to vote for until she gets to the polling station.

Margaret Thatcher was ousted as Prime Minister in 1990, yet her policies are still inspiring at least one young man to get out and vote. William Urquhart, 20, from Mint-law in Aberdeenshire, admits to having had little interest in politics before he started an HND in social sciences at Aberdeen College. Now, an awareness of how politics can shape history has given him a keen sense of the importance of casting his votes.

"We've been looking at things like political ideology, like Thatcher's policies," he says. "I disagree with some of the things. I can't change what's gone on in the past, but I can influence what happens in the future."

Mr Urquhart is not certain how he will vote, but admits being drawn towards independence and the SNP. "When you think about it, Scotland pretty much invented the modern world," he says, explaining that he is curious to see whether independence can help the country become similarly influential in the 21st century.

If political parties want to gain young voters' attention, Mr Urqhuart believes education is the area on which they should focus. He says student life can be hard, and that the reintroduction of grants would help.

Alistair Foden, 18, a sixth year pupil at Kirkwall Grammar in Orkney, has a feeling that politics is important, but is not sure why. He can name Jim Wallace and Alistair Car-michael as the Holyrood and Westminster representatives, but is not aware whether they have contributed anything worthwhile to his community. He has strong feelings about the environment, but is unconvinced that they are shared by political parties. He will vote in May's elections, but is uncertain that doing so will have much effect.

Although he feels it is important to exercise his right to vote, he doubts whether it will make any difference: "It's only one vote in many millions."

He believes the environment should be the main issue addressed by politicians, but has been unimpressed by their response to global warming: "I'm not really hearing enough. They don't put enough of an emphasis on the environment."

Mr Foden, who is studying art, maths, graphic communications and outdoor craft skills, is trying to weigh up who to vote for, but no party has made much of an impression so far.

It is not something he is likely to discuss at school, however, as he feels bringing up politics would be seen as "a social faux pas" in the common room.

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