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

  • 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

  • News Polling Labour storm to 10 point lead in London

    Labour storm to 10 point lead in London

    Labour hold a 10 point lead over the Conservatives in London, according to a new poll. They are on course to increase the two point lead they had in the capital in 2010, despite losing a mid-term Mayoral election, and make around eight gains. According to a Guardian/ICM poll the voting intention for Londoners (with change from 2010 in brackets) is: Labour 42% (+5), Tories 32% (-3), Lib Dems 9% (-13), UKIP 9% (+7), Greens 8% (+6) On a uniform […]

    Read more →
  • News Unions Unite donate extra £1 million to Labour’s election war chest

    Unite donate extra £1 million to Labour’s election war chest

    Unite the Union have pledged an extra £1 million to Labour’s election campaign today. It is a huge boost for Miliband on the first day of the short campaign, following an assured performance in last night’s leaders’ interviews. This brings the amount Unite have donated to Labour’s campaign to £3.5 million. In an article for the Daily Mirror, Len McClusky, General Secretary of the union, said they were making the cash injection because “Labour’s commitments will make a huge difference […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Polling Give the people what they want: Labour’s devolvers and the desire to give power away

    Give the people what they want: Labour’s devolvers and the desire to give power away

    The time has come to give people what they want – power over their own lives and their own communities. The aloof and distant state, making decisions in giant offices in Whitehall can feel – and act – as distantly as the big businesses, utility companies, landlords and transport companies that treat us like numbers on a page rather than individuals with needs and hopes of our own. Labour stands ready to take on the power challenge. Whilst tackling economic […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Labour campaign launch: A message of hope amid Tory warnings will prove a delicate balancing act for Miliband

    Labour campaign launch: A message of hope amid Tory warnings will prove a delicate balancing act for Miliband

    “Britain can do better than this.” “Britain can do better than this.” “Britain can do better than this.” Seven times we heard the refrain in the opening two and a half minutes of Miliband’s speech – so often was it repeated that it stopped being clear if they were all clap lines or not, leading to a couple of awkward moments. But that line, along with Labour’s official election campaign slogan “A better plan. A better future”, show that at the […]

    Read more →
  • News Seats and Selections Coventry North West: Might Geoffrey Robinson stay on as an MP after all?

    Coventry North West: Might Geoffrey Robinson stay on as an MP after all?

    Yesterday evening we reported that Coventry North West MP Geoffrey Robinson was considering stepping down from the Commons at the very last minute – only hours after Parliament shut down for the election – with rumours circulating that a Miliband aide was one of those in the running for the seat. Yet after a tetchy 24 hours (in which the local party have announced plans for an emergency meeting tomorrow night to discuss their options) it now appears that Robinson […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends










Submit