“What do we want?”

“Votes!”
“When do we want them?”
“At sixteen!”

votes_at_16

Marching through the centre of Westminster on Wednesday, a group of over 100 young people were determined to make their difference in parliament through enfranchising 16 and 17 year olds. This is a campaign that Labour already supports, but, as Christopher Chope put it, the Conservatives are “agnostic” about.

In fact, Ed Miliband has promised that if he is elected he will give the young people this political freedom but there is great debate over whether or not 16 year olds are prepared for the vote or would use it wisely. Many argue that 16 year olds would not turn out in great numbers to cast their vote; in the 2013 local elections only 32% of 18 to 24 year olds voted whereas 72% of those over 65 years old turned out to vote. This is a statistic often churned out from the opposition, but similar statistics show that there has been a decline in general voter turnout since the 1990s and political apathy is, unfortunately, becoming main stream. This is not a fault with just the younger generation; when the votes for 16 year olds policy was enforced in Austria, the University of Vienna found that 59% of 16-17 year olds voted compared to the general turnout of 61%. There has been an increase in the number of students studying politics and organisations like the Youth Parliament (where the majority of 478,000 young people surveyed voted to campaign for enfranchisement last year) show young people do want to connect with politics but this indifferent attitude towards voting is a nationwide problem the government needs to attack looking at all ages.

16 year olds are already given great liberties. They may marry and have children with their MP and even run to be councillor at 17 and yet still not vote. Isn’t this completely illogical? In the debate on Wednesday, the Conservatives pointed out that these liberties still come with restrictions. They tried to defeat the argument that you may sign up to fight for your country at 16 even though you may not vote by saying you are not allowed to fight until you are 18 but the training prepares you mentally to fight and those who enrol sign up for a minimum 4 year term so all who do sign up will have to fight. If young people are fighting for their country should they not get a choice in the foreign policy that they support the most? If, in 2015, you are 17, you will have to wait until you are 22 to vote for the next government; this should be seen as a problem for the government anyhow as it lengthens the gap between political education which can spark interest in the masses and the voting period. This is an area that MPs agree needs to be looked at further: Stephen Twigg has said that there needs to be greater focus on politics within PSHE lessons and Youth Parliament are currently campaigning for a curriculum that prepares young people for life further by teaching them about the different parties but this will not have as great an impact if young people have to wait so long before casting their votes.

With Scotland deciding to allow 16 year olds to vote on their independence referendum, this movement has been gaining recognition over the past year. In January, last year, there was the first majority in the vote about this issue. Currently, the problem is that many Lords and members of the Conservative party are unsupportive and without them this enfranchisement may grind to a halt before the 2015 elections.

Many of the Conservatives policies are aimed to please traditionalist older generations and frankly do not appeal to younger people who want to see change in the country. David Cameron couldn’t attend the debate over this very important issue. We must ask if he is trying to pretend that the issue is not gaining support across the country and he may have to confront it in his parliament. If 16-17 year olds are given the vote before 2015, what effect will this have on government? The Conservatives obviously do not think it would be a beneficial one but we’ve seen through reforms like suffrage that greater political freedoms should be embraced as great social development. This case is no different so what do the Conservatives really fear?

BY: Alice Wilcock