What’s the right age? This question is often contentious in politics. What’s the right age to be allowed to smoke? Until 2007 It was 16, but health campaigners succeeded in raising this to 18. What’s the right age to be able to consent to a sexual relationship? In the UK we say 16 but other countries say 14, or even 12. What’s the right age to vote? This one is subject to some fierce debate and has recently been in the news when MPs voted in favour of a motion to consider letting 16 and 17 year olds vote in UK elections. Does that mean campaigners for votes at 16 can rest easy? Not yet.
The Votes at 16 Coalition was formally launched in 2003, bringing together a range of youth and democracy organisations, from the National Union of Students, to the Electoral Reform Society and the British Youth Council, which currently chairs the steering group. Since then, the coalition has grown in both number and reach. The young people, organisations and politicians that join share the belief that at 16 many young people are knowledgeable and passionate about the world in which they live, they are engaged in the issues that affect them and deserve to exercise the full rights of a citizen.
There is no single age at which a young person becomes an adult, but as a society there are already some pretty major life decisions which we entrust to people at the age of 16. They can get married, join the armed forces and become a director of a company – these are no small matters for the individuals concerned but society trusts them to make judgements for themselves. The other thing that young people can do at 16 and 17 is pay income tax and National Insurance on their earned income. There is a principle of democracy that dates back at least to the American war of independence: that there should be ‘no taxation without representation’. If government can be funded with the taxes of 16 and 17 year olds, it should be elected with their votes.
The Votes at 16 coalition has been putting these arguments consistently and forcefully over the past decade but more than that, many of the organisations we represent also give young people the platforms to show that they are responsible enough to take on the full rights of citizen. For instance, the British Youth Council and the UK Youth Parliament involve thousands of young people every year in democratic processes: each November the House of Commons is taken over for a day by articulate, thoughtful under-18s whose grasp of the issues puts many MPs to shame; in 2012, the BYC developed the first Youth Select Committee, taking evidence from politicians and business leaders on the issue of young people’s access to transportation.
It was a hugely positive step that the Private Members’ Bill proposed by Liberal Democrat backbencher Stephen Williams MP was not only debated in the House of Commons, but that this time MPs approved it by 147 votes to 41. It is not the first time that votes at 16 has been raised in Parliament, there have been a number of frustrating false dawns for this crucial legal change. But as Stephen Williams claimed when kicking-off the debate, this is “a reform whose time has come”. Even with the assent of a majority of MPs at its first reading on 23rd January, the prospects for this particular bill are not bright, there is no requirement on the Government to make time for further readings and as there is not agreement between the Coalition parties, they are unlikely to bother. Nonetheless, it has made its mark and the coverage that the vote received has got many politicians thinking seriously about the next great extension of the franchise. There may be other opportunities to pass the change in voting age through amendments to other pieces of legislation as they go through Parliament, and we will keep up pressure on supportive MPs to raise it at every opportunity. Anyone who believes in the work of the Votes at 16 Coalition should use this crucial period to step up the pressure on their MP, to raise awareness in their school, college or university, to make some noise in their community that this is the right thing to do.
There are those who point to the fact that only 44% of 18-25 year olds voted in the last election to suggest that to lower the voting age would just mean more apathetic non-voters. But this is the wrong way to look at the problem: you don’t engage young people in politics by keeping them shut out of the decisions that matter at just the age that they are starting to care. Lowering the voting age may still feel a long way off, but we are slowly and surely winning the argument that 16 is a new age for democracy.
BY: Marc Kidson (British Youth Council)