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

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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.