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“Local elections are where it’s at”: Interview with 2022 Council Election Green Party Candidate, Kayleigh O’Neill

This article was originally submitted on the 19th March

Last Wednesday, The Student met with 23-year old Green Party candidate, Kayleigh O’Neill, who’s running for the city council in Forth ward, Edinburgh. Under the dome of Potterrow, bongos played next door, charging the political discussion which moved from housing to climate activism, to strikes. 

Kayleigh works closely with the Scottish Green Party co-leader, Lorna Slater, but has recently decided to forge her own path in local government. Why? She told me: “I wished there was someone like me who knew the struggles … someone like me who was in these positions of power, able to change things…Instead of saying, why doesn’t someone else do it, I thought, why don’t I do it?” 

Kayleigh focuses largely on accessibility as a full-time wheelchair user: “when I boil down my manifesto points, a lot of it is [about] safe and accessible streets”.

I asked Kayleigh: “what’s the first action you would take if you won?” “Definitely the pavement parking ban… There’s quite a bad culture of private car hierarchy in Edinburgh, where people who use private cars feel like they should have more of the roads … The city should be built for pedestrians.”

Kayleigh also brought up the idea of 20-minute neighbourhoods – a community where you do not have to travel more than 20-minutes for necessities – as both an accessibility and environmental issue: “The more we have around us, the less we need to travel, the less we need to rely on a private car, and the less we need to rely on expedited and unsustainable produce.”

Housing is also a massive issue for O’Neill, specifically within the student community. Opening up about her own experiences, Kayleigh told us: “I experienced homelessness as a student when I was at Napier. There were all those thoughts, ‘I wish there was someone there who knew my experience and I wish there was someone there that knew how to fix this’.”  

Kayleigh therefore advocates for tenants’ rights in Edinburgh, especially for students. “Rent in Edinburgh is abysmal; it is shocking and the barriers for students are immense… Some landlords are awful and should not be landlords, to be honest… They exploit students.” She later added, “for most of us, we’re never going to be able to afford a house, we’re going to be renting. We need better rights for tenants and houses that will last.”

As a Green Party member, environmentalism and climate change were also heated topics in our discussion. I asked the candidate, “have you seen any improvements when it comes to climate change since COP26?”

“No.” She quickly responded. “This was our last chance in many ways to actually commit to things and when push came to shove, a lot of world leaders did not live up to it. They’re not living up to it and it’s getting worse.”

So how can students help? Student activism through protest has been expanding exponentially in recent years. I asked Kayleigh what she thinks: “I love a protest… you’re taking up space, you’re raising your voice and how else are people going to listen?” She enthusiastically told me. “Individually we should be voting for better people, but on a wider scale, I think we should keep doing what we’re doing. You can’t dip in enthusiasm because they’ll think it’s not a problem anymore.”

On strike action, she mentioned that she had recently attended the NUS rally outside of the Scottish Parliament. “It was so empowering, but it was tragic hearing some of the stories of people who were struggling… I just thought, thank God there is space for us to do this in Scotland.”

Educational inequality is a massive issue in Kayleigh’s mind. “I could talk forever about how the inaccessibility of education is abysmal … As a disabled student, I faced a lot of barriers when getting into university and getting through university … but also I’m white and Scottish born, so I had it a lot easier in different ways.” So, what’s at the root of this inequality? Kayleigh told me, “the universities, especially around here, are tied to very old attitudes and very conservative attitudes, which need to be revisited… Money and power are behind these institutions.”

Throughout the conversation, Kayleigh made sure to push for students to get involved in local government. “Local elections are where it’s at.” She added, “when you’re a student there are so many opportunities to get involved in different things, and even if you don’t want to identify as political, government and local government affects every single one of us. Even if you’re not a full-time resident in Scotland, you’ll still come across a housing issue or a health and environment issue, or a transport issue… That’s what I want to bring to the council; a younger perspective and this anger that a lot of us have.” 

For the student community, her message was simple: “be very aware of what’s going on around you and vote when you can. You don’t have to vote for Green, but vote for your future. Vote like your future depends on it.”

Image courtesy of EdinburghGreens.org.uk