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

Getty
Show Hide image

Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear