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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.