Political sketch: A moral high ground at Leveson?

Ed Miliband puts the boot in.

When a politician inadvertently stumbles across the high moral ground you can be sure of two things, he'll be on his own and he'll set up camp immediately.

It is now set in Labour folklore that it's leader Ed Miliband finally came of age when he took the lead in calling time on 40 years of Murdoch mania.

And he was more than happy to mark the occasion by popping into the Leveson Inquiry to take his share of the credit for setting it up.

After Gordon's grumpy performance yesterday it was a whole new fresh-faced Labour leader who took the stand to promise better times ahead for the electorate.

There were some similarities as he, like the man before him, displayed little knowledge of the naughtiness that went before. He was on rocky ground only once, when asked about the boys on Gordon's Treasury team of which he'd been a member.

Yes, he was aware of the machinations of McBride and Whelan now safely in the wilderness but was not aware of any bad behaviour by one Ed Balls, now fully onside as Shadow Chancellor.

With that awkwardness quickly out of the way, it was the turn of interrogator Jay to produce the normal thumbscrews.

But having dispensed with the usual instruments of torture during a tour through the memory of another former Prime Minister John Major in the morning, it was an equally new and benevolent Jay who conducted the questioning.

(In the best traditions of people who know people who know people, Mr Jay paused to reveal that he heads up the Chambers where Mrs Miliband works as a barrister)

Happy to be out of the firing line, Ed confirmed he had chatted with members of the Murdoch evil empire at least 15 times in his first nine months of office and happily attended their summer party.

But all that changed after the Milly Dowler phone hacking revelations when he called for Rebekah Brooks to resign and an inquiry to be held.

It was "like crossing a Rubicon", said Ed, apparently believing there's more than one watery point of no return. He knew this would be seen as an "act of war" by News International but that not speaking out earlier had been a "failure of the establishment."

After cracking a couple of jokes with Jay and the Judge over the inquiry itself, which he said David Cameron had "graciously" involved him in, he then stuck it to the PM by promising the Labour Party would back any changes proposed by Leveson.

Dave, many of whose party share the Michael Gove "Rupert is magic" view of Murdoch, gets his chance to squirm on Thursday.

Earlier ex-Premier John Major - whose eight years in power are usually forgotten, squeezed as they were between Thatcherism and Blairism - popped out of retirement to put the lie to one of the few stories many remember about his reign.

Sun Editor Kelvin McKenzie had never sad he was going to "pour a bucket of shit" on him when the then PM decided to ring him on Black Wednesday.

Mr McKenzie has dined out for years on the tale and it was been often used to demonstrate the power of the Murdoch press over successive Governments.

But it was not true, said Mr Major, who had unfortunately waited 20 years to issue the denial. As his story unfolded it was clear that this particular bucket might have missed, but plenty of others didn't.

The former PM confessed to being "too sensitive" about the press - a sentiment so strongly denied by Gordon during his angry indifference on Monday.

As he joined Gordon heading back into history, both must have marvelled as Ed M called on Rupert to be forced to give up the Sun or The Times, never mind BSkyB.

"As is clear from this account I have not had a close relationship with News International since being Labour leader", said Ed.

Over to you Dave.

Photo: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

Photo: Getty
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Lowering the voting age is the best way to protect the franchise we've fought so hard for

Empowering young people is the best way to renew civic and political engagement.

Too many believe that politics isn’t working for them. That those who make decisions are not acting in their interests. And too often, narrow interests win over the wider public interest. Our economy isn’t working either. It never will until we repair our fragile politics.

When I was leader of Oldham Council I recognised that to reform, it must open up. It needed to bring forward ideas and challenges from all those who are affected by decisions taken in their name.

We gave constitutional rights for the youth council to move motions and reports at our full council meeting. We opened up our meetings with live web-streaming and questions from all residents. And we embraced social media, combined with instant comments, which were shown in the chamber during debates.

It opened up democracy and gave councillors an insight into issues which affect young people. But two things stood out. The first was that many of these issues are the same ones which affect the wider public. But they are affected in different ways by decisions or the lack of action by government. Second, and most importantly, while we were engaging young people they had no say over who was making decisions on their behalf.

So of crucial importance to me is how we bolster democracy to weather the challenges it faces today and in the future. Recent events at home and abroad have convinced me of the importance of this. There are two separate approaches that parliament must take. Firstly, we must devolve more power from central government to local communities. And secondly, we must at all costs renew civic and political engagement here in the UK. I’ve come to believe that getting more and more young people engaged in politics is fundamental to realising this second point. And I see lowering the voting age as key to cementing this.

I hear the arguments against this loud and clear. Eighteen is the official age of independence. Eighteen is when someone forms their world view. And 18 is when reasoned, judgemental thought suddenly kicks in. On that basis, the years preceding that are presumably some kind of wilderness of rational thinking and opinion forming. Someone even tweeted at me this week to inform me that under-18s don’t know what they want for dinner, let alone how to vote.

Needless to say, I find all these points unconvincing and in some cases dismissive and patronising.

I speak with people even younger than 16 who have coherent views on politics, often a match for any adult. They even know what they want for dinner! And I am of the strong belief that empowering young people through a wider enfranchisement will speed up this development. Even better if votes at 16 is accompanied by compulsory political education in the preceding years.

So if your argument is that young people are too immature, that they lack political knowledge to be given the vote, or that they aren’t responsible enough – then I say to you, bring on lowering the voting age! As my argument is that empowering young people to vote will help overcome these challenges where they exist.

But where do other countries sit on lowering the voting age? Admittedly, among western democracies, the UK would be taking a bold step-forward. In Europe, it’s only Austria where all 16-year-olds can vote. There are some patchwork exceptions to this closer to home. For example, the voting age on the Isle of Man is 16. And this week we heard that the Welsh Assembly is considering lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections.

Outside of these scant examples, there is little precedent for change. However, we shouldn’t find ourselves cowed by this. Our past is littered with bold actions, proud speeches and even lives lost to win and defend the right to vote.

200 years ago on Tandle Hill in Royton hundreds of protestors, who had travelled from nearby mill towns like Oldham and Rochdale, gathered together. They were preparing to march on Peters Field in Manchester on a summer’s day in August 1819. What was at stake was a greater say in parliamentary decisions, at a time of famine and widespread poverty. Non-land-owning workers were entirely excluded from the franchise. By the end of the day, government cavalry had cut down 14 protesters, and injured hundreds more. In 1832 only men renting or owning valuable land were given the vote. And it wasn’t until 1918 that all men were included in the franchise.

This month we remember the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. The sacrifices made during the First World War by our working-class men and boys, 250,000 of whom were under 18, was a catalyst for extending the vote to all men.

Next year we celebrate 100 years since the start of women’s suffrage. In Oldham, Annie Kenney and Emmeline Pankhurst fought tirelessly. They would both be arrested before seeing that privilege granted to only some women in 1918. Today it is sobering to think that women didn’t have the vote before 1918.

And it was only in 1970 that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, allowing teenagers to vote for the first time in the UK. Prevalent then were exactly the same arguments that stop 16- and 17-year-olds voting today.

While we recognise the fight of others, we fail in our duty if we believe the fight for democracy is settled.

So I draw inspiration from how the franchise has steadily grown throughout our history. And I reflect on the acts of courage, grit and determination that have won us that change. With the extension of the franchise have come the liberties, freedoms and values that make our society what it is today. It hasn’t happened of its own accord. Lives have been lost and bold steps have been taken for us to enjoy placing that cross alongside the candidate of our choosing.

This cannot be seen as a way to shift the political debate to young voters either. Many older voters, including many of my friends and family, feel that politics isn’t working for them either. Reducing the voting age isn’t the silver bullet to address that disconnect, but it is vital to strengthening connect between decision makers and those who pay taxes.

I welcome the debate on lowering the voting age. A debate about once again spreading the freedoms and responsibilities of our society to many more people. And I’ll match arguments against this every step of the way. Because I am clear in my mind that defending the franchise and extending the franchise are two sides of the same coin.

Jim McMahon is the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.

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