Thursday, 1 December 2016

Votes at 16: A "Left Wing Vanity Project" or "Essential 21st Century Cross-Party Campaign"?

I can't tell a lie whenever I do my politico blogging. I'm a strong advocate of encouraging Millennials to vote at the ballot box whenever an election happens in their local area. Whether it's to decide who will represent your own ward on the local council, who will be the person to hold your local police force to account or who will be your overarching constituency representative in Parliament  (MP) it is important to exercise your right to be part of the decision making process. The Votes at 16 campaign, jointly run by The British Youth Council (BYC) and the Electoral Reform Society have been working for 2 decades to try and raise awareness of the need to include 16 and 17 year olds as part of the UK Electorate and the advantages of doing this. As the website footnote states "over 1.5 million 16 and 17 year old voters are currently denied the vote." Should we routinely deny young adults the right to vote in national elections?

The recent Scottish and EU Referendums showed how different 16 and 17 year olds were treated with regards to the value attached to their ability to vote. The SNP actively encouraged 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the Scottish Referendum because they believed that students deserved a say in how they wanted to shape their future -whether it would be as part of an independent Scotland or remaining part of the Union. The SNP didn't worry about whether more students would vote against independence; they actively wanted to give 16 and 17 year olds the votes. On the 18th September 2014, 75% of the Scottish electorate who were aged 16 and 17 came out to vote in the referendum (80% had registered to vote to begin with!) This shows that 16 and 17 year olds can be politically engaged and most take the opportunity to vote when given the chance. The Scottish Government were so impressed by the turnout figures that on the 18th June 2015, with cross party support, they voted to ensure 16 and 17 year olds could vote in Scottish Parliament and local Government Elections from spring 2016 onwards through the Scottish Elections (Reduction of Voting Age) Bill. This can only be a good sign for Scottish democracy in the future, whether part of the Union or as an independent country!

However, during the EU referendum, time and time again 16 and 17 year olds were rebuked for wanting to have their say over the future direction of UK politics. Tweets online were often vitriolic, patronising and were a deliberate attempt to delegitimise Millennial views in general, not just those aged 16 and 17. Numerous times I saw tweeters who defined themselves as "champions of liberty and democracy" and "anti EU" tweet to young political commentators to say they were "too immature to form a balanced opinion" or "would only vote based on populism like they do when watching X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and other reality TV shows". Rather funny to think that some of those 16 and 17 year olds who wanted to participate in the EU Referendum may have been more informed and more enthusiastic about their votes than many Millennials and certainly some of their parents! The tweets were not just confined to the usual Eurosceptic suspects on the far-right who oppose Votes at 16 for almost for olde worlde traditional UKIP/BNP bigotry but also from Labour leaning Brexit voters who should know better than to victimise politically engaged young people.  I don't know whether the inclusion of 16 and 17 year olds as part of the electorate for the EU referendum would have swung the vote for Remain but 16 and 17 year olds deserved to have their voices listened to at a time when the future international political and economic direction of the UK as a whole was being decided. Scottish voters who had been able to participate in their local elections only a month before were dismayed at the fact they couldn't vote in the EU Referendum and their frustration was clear to see whether it was on Buzzfeed or during the BBC debate with Victoria Derbyshire, where there was some concern shown about the cost of university fees or choice of course if a 16/17 year old wanted to study abroad post-Brexit and also about the cost of travelling/getting healthcare/using mobile phones whilst on holiday would increase as a result of leaving the EU. These were all legitimate concerns for young people with some disposable income from working hard but these young adult voters (and 16 and 17 year olds) got mocked and poo-pooed on by older Brexit orientated voters for "being silly" or "hysterical" for raising them. For shame! I can understand why only 64% of 18-24 year olds decided to show up at the polls on the 23rd June; some probably felt they wouldn't get listened to and others thought their concerns would never be addressed and that the Brexiteers would win anyways. Very different voting atmospheres were created by the 2 referendums and there are lessons to be learned. One of them is to look at voter engagement.

The Political and Constitutional Committee's report on voter engagement, which was published in November 2014 called on the Coalition Government to lead a national discussion on reducing the voting age and allow a free vote in the House of Commons on the issue.  This discussion hasn't really taken place in sufficient depth since the EU Votes at 16 Referendum Bill was overturned in December 2015 by the House of Lords after being initially approved by peers (mainly due to the support of Labour and Lib Dem Peers).  It is clear that Labour, The Green Party, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the SNP all express support for lowering the vote to 16. I have a feeling that mainstream Conservatives are scared of allowing empowered younger people to vote, because they would primarily do so to try and improve youth services and that requires more funding to be available at a national and local governmental level. Yes young people care that youth clubs and arts charities across the UK are losing vital funding streams. Yes young people care about mental health service provision being massively underfunded, especially in the English regions. Yes young people care about not being discriminated against at work despite of their age or on the basis of their faith, nationality, race, gender or sexuality. Yes young people care about the number of full time jobs being available to them once they graduate from college or finish their apprenticeship; they don't want to feel as if all of the time, money and effort that they spent on getting good grades or completing their schemes has been in vain. And yes, young people care about the environment, animal welfare and whether profits of corporate oil companies are being put before the rights of working people, animals and plants in Lancashire, Yorkshire et al. Are all of these issues only meant to be the preserve of left wing, progressive politicians? If so, no wonder the Tories and UKIP should be scared of being booted out of a number of marginal seats across the South and Midlands. I can imagine Lincoln could be one place where an increased Millennial electorate could favour the Labour party if they are willing to deliver policies that help improve the lives of their fellow peers. By reinstating the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), increasing the NLW rates for apprentices and people aged 16-25 and increasing provisions to protect people from age discrimination at work, all policies Labour are currently willing to implement, their vote share would increase thanks to 16 and 17 year olds voting. Perhaps that might force the Tories to start taking the concerns of Millennial voters more seriously.

If the fact that young people are crying out for representation at a national and local governmental level to help improve the lives of their peers does concern you, here's a list of extra reasons why the age should be lowered:
  • Opponents say that we need to focus on increasing voter turnout amongst Millennials aged between 18 and 24. The issue is that enthusiasm for politics may have waned by the time 16 and 17 year olds have their first chance to vote after their 18th birthday. Besides, it may bolster turnout if Millennials know that their younger peers are being given a chance to express their political voice openly at the ballot box and if you vote at 16/17 I believe you are more likely to carry on voting later on in life.
  • Citizenship education has made 16 and 17 year olds more politically aware; I know that more needs to be done to ensure impartial, appropriate lessons about the different political parties should be created to be delivered in classrooms across the UK but at least more secondary school students know about the need to vote. The fact that young people have said that they feel they "don't have someone inspirational to vote for" is not a reason to deny them the opportunity to vote.
  • If 16 and 17 year olds can become parents, marry, work in full time or part time positions to save up for university or pay for materials for their A Level courses or be part of the apprenticeship programme, join the Armed Forces or pass their driving test at 17, then I believe that they are mature enough to vote. These young people have taken on responsibilities that require them to act in a sensible manner. Politicians make decisions which affect most of their lives and if a young mother can't get enough money together to feed and clothe her young child, a young man doesn't feel safe when being deployed out on a mission abroad or a young black person doesn't believe that the syllabus they are learning for A Level English Literature isn't reflective of their own experiences, then I feel they deserve to vote for a party that they believe might be able to make a positive change in their lives.
I do think it's time we properly debated lowering the voting age in the UK for all elections to 16. It's not just a project that should be championed by left wing activists. Every party should be encouraged to back the Votes at 16 campaign because it's about extending democratic rights to those who work hard to improve their station in life from an early life, even from a difficult starting point. I'm glad to see that some Conservative MPs from my region have already signed the pledge to vote to reduce the voting age to 16- Martin Vickers, MP for Cleethorpes and Matt Warman MP for Boston and Skegness yet the total number of MPs in favour still only stands at 268/650 MPs. This is in sharp contrast to all 129 MSPs in the Scottish Parliament now being in favour of guaranteeing the vote to 16 year olds.

The future looks bright but I'd urge those MPs who still refuse to back the campaign to go and speak to their sixth form students and apprentices in their constituencies and tell them why you won't allow them to vote and then listen to the responses you get from them. Hopefully you might reconsider your position afterwards. The Votes at 16 campaign isn't a "hipster" movement that allows left wing politicians to feel "smug" about having a policy position that might increase voter turnout for them at a general election. The campaign is about cross-party cooperation for the positive increment of democracy through empowerment of a section of society often ignored and overlooked due to past bias centered around a political "coming of age" which is outdated and draconian. Besides, I thought most Brexiteers voted to improve our democratic accountability, so surely you'd be all for empowerment of the electorate? Or perhaps it is only empowerment for those deemed "capable" of being able to make "sensible" decisions pre 1975 style?