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

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.