The National Policy forum in its wisdom has voted to recommend to Labour party conference that reducing the voting age to 16 be in the next Labour manifesto. This has started a lively debate in the party and the country at large – one that we should all welcome and get on board with.
I have long supported the Votes at 16 campaign and not just for the very good reasons of fairness and consistency that my colleagues in Young Labour, the British Youth Council and the UK youth parliament might make. I agree with them and think it is right that if you can become a parent, join the army and pay income taxes you should have representation to go with it. I also agree that young people forced to pay adult fairs and make adult education and employment choices should be included in our franchise.
Although I agree with each of these points, I believe the case for votes at 16 are more compelling when coupled with the arguments and values that made me join the Labour party.
Since 1997, Labour has invested in youth services, abolished youth unemployment and protected young people as the victims of crime. Our Labour government has made the progressive case for young people in society and their place as a force for good. We have created record volunteering and funded youth mayors, youth councils and youth fora that are building better youth provision, skate parks and community festivals. But all of these are now under direct political attacks from our adversaries. Nobody sensible suggests that the New Deal or the Youth Opportunity Fund will survive a future Tory government.
This political reality therefore requires that young people be given the tools to defend their public services at the ballot box. No longer should their status be mere witnesses to the cutbacks that Tory government and councils inevitably bring.
Dawn Butler MP, Labour party vice chair for youth, put it best when she said: ‘Around the UK, Tory, Lib Dem and SNP councils are cutting youth services despite Labour’s massive funding increases. Not only are Labour councillors fighting off these cuts, Labour is now giving young people the vote and the chance to fight back.’
This opportunity for young people to become partners in defending the successes of the Labour government could re-engage young people with our party and Britain’s democracy making votes at 16 both good policy and good politics. This common endeavour opens a dialogue with young people about what progressive politics can achieve and why Labour is the only party for young people and their aspiring families.
There are also untold organisational benefits. Votes at 16 would mean that 50 per cent of first-time voters would be in an organised community – ie school or college – and could be targeted with husting events and serious political choices. Schools could get the same ‘duty to promote local democracy’ that local authorities are getting and maybe schools could organise minibuses in free periods to bring students to cast their ballot every year. It might even mean that the local council brings the ballot boxes to the school making it yet easier to vote and more likely that young people engage.
Finally, now the UK has a network of youth fora, youth councils, young mayors and members of the youth parliament I think the argument that young people cannot understand our democratic systems is fundamentally flawed. The youth mayor in my borough has a budget of £25,000 – substantially more that any councillor or backbench MP – yet does not have the ‘intelligence’ to vote for the administration who sets and potentially cut his or her budget.
As the party of aspiration, we must show young people that we believe in their ability to be a force for good in society and that we stand with them in their changing world where they are more likely to make the media if they carry a gun and join a gang while many young are making speeches at council meetings and wielding paint brushes in community projects.
I hope all party conference delegates will back the NPF position and include votes at 16 in the Labour manifesto. It is time to reaffirm to young people that Labour is on their side.
More information on the campaign can be found here
Richard Angell is national chair of Young Labour