Votes at 16 can help address the widening gap between people and politics

1st October, 2013 5:36 pm

When 16- and 17-year-olds were given the vote for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, it created a cast-iron logic for introducing votes at 16 universally. Why should these particular young people be entrusted with the franchise, and not their counterparts in the rest of the UK? And why should they have a say on independence but not on who represents them at the local, Holyrood or Westminster level?

That ruling, passed into law this summer, made votes at 16 for all British elections more likely. But that is not why Ed Miliband was right to commit Labour to the policy in his conference speech last week. It was right because votes at 16 could be an important first step in addressing one of our most pressing problems: the widening gap between people and politics.

There are good reasons to think that giving people the vote at a younger age will improve the chances of them being engaged in politics for the rest of their life. According to Eric Plutzer, voting is a ‘gradually acquired habit’, and the earlier you get into that habit the more likely you will sustain it over a lifetime.

But voting should be more than just a behavioural tic, and that is why citizenship education is so important. If 16- and 17-year-olds are given the vote, they should already be thinking deeply about what it means to be a good citizen. One of the advantages of votes at 16 is that it allows young people to exercise their civic rights while their citizenship education is still fresh in their mind. But if that citizenship education is insufficient, then the benefits of early voting will not come through.

Many who teach citizenship in schools bemoan the fact that it is accorded too little status in the curriculum. Labour should think about embedding the votes at 16 pledge into their wider programme for renewing education policy, with particular emphasis on citizenship. Political reforms are too often framed within a ‘constitutional’ silo, cut off from the rest of public policy. Votes at 16 is the perfect antidote to this. It is by exploring every issue from education to the environment, from the economy to immigration that younger people will feel more motivated to come to the ballot  box – not the other way round.

There are some excellent examples of what a renewed commitment to citizenship in schools might look like – a recent IPPR report cites four schools which not only take citizenship teaching seriously, but also instil a commitment to democratic participation in their students across their activities both in school and in the community.

If this kind of initiative is encouraged, then it could make the promise of votes at 16 turn into the reality of a more engaged society. This is not just about young people now. Votes at 16 could be the start of a wider debate about what constitutes political participation and what are the barriers stopping people of all ages from taking part.

In the end, this policy’s true measure of success will not be the numbers of 16- and 17-year-olds who turn out to vote, and it won’t even be the overall voter turnout in generations to come. It will be the degree to which people are more likely to participate in our democracy, whether in their neighbourhood, through their workplace or trade union, or as elected representatives. That should be the ultimate aim of any civic reform, and votes at 16 is no exception.

Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society

To report anything from the comment section, please e-mail [email protected]
  • Ben Cobley

    I’m thinking we should be focusing more on trying to engage the existing electorate a bit better rather than creating a new one.

    I also don’t like the idea of our schools and sixth-form colleges becoming overtly party political – there are some nasty potential unintended consequences in that.

    http://afreeleftblog.blogspot.co.uk/

    • swatnan

      You’re right. Votes at 16 will go down like a lead balloon, especially amongst the 16 yr olds.

  • Peter Metalli

    No taxation without representation.

    Can’t expect them to to pay income tax if we don’t give them the right to tell MPs how to
    spend it.

Latest

  • Comment Featured Uncategorized As the dust settles on the vote for Brexit, it is time to reach out to our democracy’s missing millions

    As the dust settles on the vote for Brexit, it is time to reach out to our democracy’s missing millions

    At a critical point in the development of the Labour party leadership, this article offers a few thoughts on a future Labour agenda for democratic reform that transcends internal politicking. After four years of working at Bite The Ballot, a party-neutral youth democracy movement – and one that unites decision-makers of all persuasions in its work – I can say that British politics still has a long way to go on the road to democratic renewal. Though the pieces are still […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured We must bring politics back to our communities rather than leave people to rely on Westminster “elites”

    We must bring politics back to our communities rather than leave people to rely on Westminster “elites”

    All told, it’s not been a good few months for the standing of our politicians. Whether you think there was a good case to have a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU or not, the reason we were all put through it was ultimately one of internal Conservative party management. A fundamental question about who we are as a nation and how to best represent our interests was embarked upon because David Cameron thought it was his best […]

    Read more →
  • News Kinnock: Labour must show that its socialism can “work in practice”

    Kinnock: Labour must show that its socialism can “work in practice”

    Neil Kinnock has criticised “ideological flights of fancy”, and said that Labour needs to show that socialism can “work in practice” before it can be successful. The former leader has said that winning parties have to be “professional” as well as having a “sense of belief”, and launched a strong attack on “career politicians”. “You can enchant people by ideological flights of fancy, but that’s not going to help them at all,” Lord Kinnock told BBC programme Conversations this week. He said […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured Wayne David: Top-down change no longer works – we must boost democracy from the ground up

    Wayne David: Top-down change no longer works – we must boost democracy from the ground up

    If we are serious about extending political engagement and closing the gap between people and politics, Labour needs to do two things. Firstly, we need to have a coherent and powerful narrative about bringing power closer to the people. And secondly, we need to have a series of practical proposals to make the political process more accessible and relevant to people. Even though Labour was the party which introduced devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and recently favoured “permissive” […]

    Read more →
  • Featured News Corbyn campaign looks to mobilise thousands in the North

    Corbyn campaign looks to mobilise thousands in the North

    Thousands of Corbynistas are expected to turn out to back the leader at a series of rallies in the North of England organised by Momentum. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign hopes that events in York, Leeds, Hull and Liverpool over the weekend will mobilise large numbers of the grassroots membership as he aims to replicate the successful nationwide speaking tour of last year’s contest. Corbyn will be joined by fellow core MP supporters Richard Burgon and Imran Hussain as well as local councillors in […]

    Read more →
x

LabourList Daily Email

Everything Labour. Every weekday morning

Share with your friends










Submit