Giving the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds is radical, but it’s also right

Society deems them responsible enough to pay taxes and get married, so why shouldn't they have a democratic stake in the way the country is run?

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Parliament today welcomes campaigners from across the country, thronging to Westminster in favour of votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, and demonstrating an enthusiasm for politics that prove the naysayers’ warnings of apathy in the younger generations are misguided.

I’m proud that my party is squarely behind the campaign. Ed Miliband confirmed in his speech to last year’s Labour Party conference that if we win the next election we will indeed give 16 and 17-year-olds a vote. I believe it’s only right and proper that those society deems responsible enough to pay taxes and get married should have a democratic stake in the way that society is organised.

Being an MP has many rewarding privileges, and visiting schools and colleges on a regular basis is one of them. Meeting with young people never fails to impress me with a sense of just how engaged they are in the big issues of the day. Sometimes the scrutiny and questioning I receive from them puts the House of Commons chamber to shame. Critics underestimate at their peril young people’s thirst for politics.

As MPs inboxes will testify, internet-based campaigning by 38 Degrees and many others has tapped into the tech-savvy younger generations. And I know from the enthusiasm shown towards the youth parliament and the election of young mayors up and down the country that the appetite there is amongst our young people to get involved in politics. Even the Labour Party is doing its bit, offering those under 19 the chance to join for just £1.

I don’t pretend that all is rosy in the political garden. Too many remain disconnected from Westminster party politics, even amongst those active in the big political issues of the day on, say, the environment, human rights and international development. There’s still a big burden on political parties to demonstrate their relevance to today’s young people as the means by which we can deliver the change demanded by so many.

We need to make our democracy more open and accessible to young people. And this is doubly important when you take the recent IPPR research showing those who vote when they reach the age when they first become eligible are more likely to carry on voting. The lesson from this is getting people hooked and in the habit could lead to a lifetime of visits to the ballot box.

We need to go further. Three times in the last century the franchise has been extended – in 1918 to nearly all men, in 1928 to women, and then in 1969 to 18-20 year olds. The next Parliament could see the fourth instalment with 16 and 17-year-olds allowed to vote.

And, given the things we ask of our 16 and 17-year-olds, why shouldn’t they be allowed to vote? To recap: they can give full consent to medical treatment, pay income tax and National Insurance, get married or enter a civil partnership, become a company director, join the armed services and obtain welfare benefits in their own right. Complementing this with giving them a democratic stake in how their taxes are spent seems only fair.

Lowering the voting age offers a great opportunity to do more to inspire more people to vote and be politically active. Being able to vote from the age of 16 should be embraced by schools and colleges – encouraging the placing of ballot boxes on the premises to make it as easy as possible to vote, not closing them down totally on polling day as currently happens in many schools.

We need to improve the quality of citizenship education across the board, helping raise the understanding of our democracy and how it works, and aligning this with the ability to vote from the age of 16. Many academic subjects such as history, economics, geography and politics have at their heart the study of the impact public policy and the ramifications political decisions have had on society.

This isn’t about politicising the classroom – it’s about educating our young people to give them the tools they need to play an active role in shaping the public policy of the future.

And there’s one further important point. Young people have been on the end of some of this Government’s worst excesses – abolishing Educational Maintenance Allowance, tripling tuition fees and turning a blind eye to the surge in long term youth unemployment. The IPPR research goes on to show people aged 16-24 face cuts to services worth 28 per cent of their annual household income, compared to 10 per cent for those aged 55-74. The fact that younger people are less likely to vote cannot have gone unnoticed by the Government, and doing all we can to encourage more 16-24-year-olds to vote could lead to governments thinking twice about loading the worst aspects of their policy agenda on this group in the future.

Let’s be clear, this isn’t a panacea to solving our political problems. I don’t make exaggerated claims that this is the silver bullet to falling participation rates in elections. But it is part of the solution to getting more people involved in politics.

 

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