In next month’s Scottish Referendum, 16 and 17-year-olds living in Scotland will get to vote. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Why 16 year olds should get the vote

At the age of 16 a British citizen can legally have sex, get married, join the army, smoke, leave home, claim benefits, and contribute to the public purse through taxes – but vote in a general election? Not yet.

Here’s a stark statistic for anyone interested in British politics: the three lowest post-war electoral turnouts in the UK occurred in the last three general elections – in 2001, 2005 and 2010. Less than two thirds of those entitled to vote went to the polls at the last UK general election, a slight improvement on the previous two elections – but, compared to 1950, almost 20 per cent fewer eligible voters exercised this hard-won right. Dwindling electoral turnout is not something a democratic country should overlook. The mandate of the government comes from the collective will of the people. But despite this, there are over 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK who are not legally entitled to have their say. By contrast, in next month’s Scottish Referendum 16 and 17-year-olds living in Scotland will get to vote on whether Scotland remains part of the UK, yet at next year’s general election, the same age group across the UK will have to watch passively while older citizens go to the ballot box.

It’s true that turnout in recent general elections has been poor amongst younger voters. Under 40 per cent of 18-24-year-olds voted in 2001 and 2005 and, despite the close race in 2010, the youth vote only increased to 44 per cent – seven percentage points lower than in 1997. But this is no reason to continue to deny the right to vote to 16 and 17-year-olds. Quite the opposite; extending the franchise to this age group would create an excellent opportunity to increase youth interest and participation in mainstream and especially electoral politics. Research suggests that politically literate citizens are more likely to participate in democracy, and schools and colleges play a key role in preparing young people for democratic life. Giving the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds would therefore help re-focus citizenship education lessons that were introduced by Labour in 2002 and which, despite being revised and slimmed-down by the current coalition government, continue to contain an important political participative dimension.

Preventing people from voting until they are 18 means that many citizens, in practice, do not get a chance to vote in general elections until they are well into their 20s. Whilst there is much to be said in favour of the Fixed-term Parliament Act introduced in 2011, one consequence of ensuring that general elections will not be held more frequently than once every five years (except where a vote of no confidence in the government is passed or where two-thirds of MPs support the holding of a general election) is that even more young people will be negatively affected in this way. This is extremely unfortunate given that the evidence suggests that unless young people acquire the habit of voting at an early stage they will carry on failing to vote as they get older. Of course, lowering the voting age to 16 would not be a panacea to youth disengagement from electoral politics specifically or mainstream politics in general. A range of additional measures are required, such as those set out in the report Beyond the Youth Citizenship Commission published by the Political Studies Association earlier this year, including the formation of a standing Commission on Education for Citizenship to monitor provision in schools and colleges in England; compulsory electoral registration in schools and colleges across the UK; and the establishment of compulsory annual MP and local councillor constituency surgeries and political party policy forums aimed at young people to be held in local schools, colleges and community centres.

Young people have been marginalised in public policy in recent years and votes at 16 would help address this. They have borne the brunt of austerity measures, such as increased university tuition fees and the closure of youth centres, introduced since the onset of the global financial crisis. Despite this, research has demonstrated that young people are not apathetic – they are interested in “politics”, broadly defined, have their own views and engage in ways they feel are appropriate to their everyday lives. However, whilst alternative forms of democratic engagement, such as consumer politics, community campaigns, and the use of online technology are very important modes of political participation, the disengagement of significant numbers of young people from formal politics has very negative consequences for representative British democracy that must be tackled.

The likelihood of votes at 16 is increasing. In 2010, the Liberal Democrats made clear their commitment to this policy in their general manifesto and Labour leader Ed Miliband announced his support last year in his party conference speech in Brighton. The inclusion of 16 and 17-year-olds in the referendum on Scotland’s independence will add to this pressure. The referendum is offering the next generation of Scottish workers, parents, educators, and even political leaders, the chance to have an impact on a decision which will shape their future. It’s time that more young people across the UK have the chance to do this in all elections. An inclusive conception of citizenship demands that the viewpoints of young people must be heard. If the political establishment are serious about listening to their views then across the political spectrum they should commit to lowering the voting age to 16.

Dr Ben Kisby is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln, UK, and an active member of the Political Studies Association. He is organising a PSA-funded event on young people’s politics on 5 September 2014 at the University of Lincoln, which is open to anyone who would like to come along. For more information and to register to attend please email: bkisby[at]lincoln[dot]ac[dot]uk. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not the PSA.

Getty
Show Hide image

"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

0800 7318496