Votes at 16 could create a new generation of politically active citizens

By offering the vote to 16 and 17 year olds at school, in college or in workplaces we can intertwine civic duty with our education system.

The UK is facing a democratic deficit of startling proportions. Electoral turnout in the UK has been on a downward trend since 1950, when 84 per cent of the population turned out to vote. It was just 65 per cent in the last general election. Membership of our political parties has fallen – the Conservative Party has gone from being 3 million strong in 1950 to having just 100,000 members today. Only 44 per cent of those aged 18-24 voted in the 2010 general election and a recent survey found that only a third of 16-24 year olds say they have an interest in politics.

The statistics tell a depressing story of decline in trust in party politics and its ability to effect change. It was an issue that Russell Brand spoke about earlier this year. Whilst I disagree strongly with the content of his comments, Brand touched upon a common view when he lashed out at the political system. He represented an entrenched feeling that people deserve and expect more.

It would be easy to retreat from this problem, especially in the midst of the significant economic and policy challenges we face. One Nation Labour must take a different approach and open up our democracy to bring about change. It is not enough to do nothing and hope the tide changes. It is essential that we seek to explore new ways of achieving democratic renewal and political reform.

At the Labour conference, Ed Miliband set out one of the ways in which we will seek to change the current situation. Introducing votes at 16 is a bold and radical proposal that, if implemented with care, has the potential to energise a new generation of politically active and engaged citizens. Votes at 16 needs to go hand-in-hand with wider youth engagement and a renewed commitment to Citizenship Education.

Too often we deplore the fact that a majority of young people didn’t vote in the election, but then decide to do nothing about it. Youth is not automatically linked to apathy, and the reasons behind low turnout are multi-faceted and complicated. In my experience, young people today are often highly political but understandably wary of formal party politics. Many don’t feel politicians are listening to their concerns or talking about their aspirations. Opening up our democratic system to younger people is an important way in which we can solve this problem. Rather than turn our back, we must instead seek to improve the current democratic malaise by empowering young people.

The Education Participation Age is rising to 18. By offering the vote to 16 and 17 year olds at school, in college or in workplaces we can intertwine civic duty with our education system. Conferring a democratic responsibility and opportunity on people still in compulsory education offers practical benefits. On polling days, schools and colleges could having polling stations for students, making it more likely for this group to take advantage. Vote once and you are more likely to vote again. It is not something they think about every day, or spend their evenings and weekends campaigning about, but (even with the decline in turnout) for most people voting is a habit.

Over time, voting could become a rite of passage in our education system, like taking exams. This will require a massive strengthening of citizenship education. The last Labour government made great strides with its introduction of citizenship as a subject in secondary school. Citizenship education should sit at the core of our curriculum, giving young people an understanding, deeper knowledge and interest in civic issues. Votes at 16 would place renewed emphasis on this area for our schools.

In 2014, the issue will step up and I look forward to working with Young Labour, MPs and PPCs across the country in engaging with young people and campaigning for change. Last month, I attended a meeting at Furness Sixth Form College arranged by local Labour MP John Woodcock on this issue. Votes at 16 has been voted a priority campaign by the Youth Parliament, and I will be supporting them going forward and in Scotland, 16-18 year olds will be able to vote in the referendum in September. I want to meet with young people up and down the country who are in interested in politics, and begin to explore their issues and areas of concern and see what policy priorities they may have. It is time their voice was heard by the whole of Westminster. 

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

A mock ballot box to encourage people to vote in the Bristol mayoral election on November 15, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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