ON FRIDAY my Bill to lower the voting age to 16 was debated in Parliament. Let’s make no bones about it – it was a disappointing day for young people and supporters of this campaign. The Bill was frustrated by Tory MPs manipulating Parliamentary procedure. Ultimately they blocked it going to a vote. However despite their efforts, the campaign is alive and well – and there is a good chance we’ll see success before too long!
Over 160 MPs were in Parliament on Friday, waiting to vote in support of lowering the voting age. Joining them in Parliament were scores of young people representing the votes at 16 campaign – including those from the Oldham Youth Council. My thanks goes out to MPs who attended Parliament and contributed constructively to the debate. And also, a special thanks to young people themselves. the votes at 16 coalition worked tirelessly on this campaign, but in particular the work of the Oldham Youth Council was instrumental.
So what happened on the day – why do we not have votes at 16?
Unfortunately, Tory MPs blocked a democratic vote on the issue by ‘filibustering’, meaning they talked out the debate earlier that day. Exploiting this loophole in Parliamentary debating rules is a real shame, and in my view undermines our democracy. Whether for or against votes at 16, it is an issue that many people are passionate about. So it is only right that it gets a proper debate and importantly a vote in Parliament.
What happens next?
Undoubtedly, the outcome was disappointing. But the campaign certainly doesn’t end here. Firstly, young people have galvanised the campaign over the past few months. The publicity gained, and the way that young people proved their worth and interest, means the issue is no longer possible to ignore.
Secondly, there will be soon be another opportunity for us to take this to a vote. My colleague Peter Kyle, the MP for Hove, will be presenting a second Bill in May. I am a signatory to this Bill, and I’ll be there campaigning on this issue again. It will prove more difficult for a handful of Tory MPs to talk this one out again.
But we can’t sit and wait until then. We must keep the pressure on the Government by raising this issue in Parliament at every opportune moment. Young people themselves must continue their hard work, raising votes at 16 on social media and lobbying their MP – especially Tory MPs.
Why is it important that we keep fighting for votes at 16?
The campaign to lower the voting age is not a new one. But there is a point in history when the time is right for change. We have seen it in our recent past, when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, and we have seen it when women and working class men were given the vote at the end of the First World War. These were hard won achievements.
Now I believe that the time has come to give 16 and 17-year olds that vote too. Because democracy is not, and never should be, an exclusive club. Members of Parliament across the House agree with me on this, and there is a growing Tory case for votes at 16 too.
I think we demand a lot of 16 and 17-year olds today. They are part of an increasingly complex world, and were not given a say in the referendum on United Kingdom’s membership of European Union when they clearly should have been. Young people also face growing challenges – an unpredictable jobs market, obstacles to higher education, and acute housing pressures, to name a few.
So with this in mind, it is my view that democracy should be about franchising people. And it must move with the times, evolving to allow young people to affect change on the issues that matter to them most.
And for those Tory MPs who do not support this – they must wake up and realise that politics has become far more inclusive. There is now a drive to take into account a wider range of views when making decisions on people’s behalf.
Young people proved their worth in this year’s general election, when we had the highest youth turnout since 1992. In Scotland, where 16 and 17-year olds were given a say in the independence referendum, 75 per cent turned out to vote. The success of extending the franchise there led to Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson declaring herself a convert to votes at 16. And now Wales is moving to lower the voting age for elections there.
Votes at 16 is a priority for young people themselves. This year almost a million young people voted in the UK youth parliament country-wide ballot called ‘Make Your Mark’, where votes at 16 was made one of their five priority campaigns.
I also see the desire for change and for political participation in Oldham’s youth parliament. I see and hear it when I visit schools and colleges. Young people are engaged and switched on to the world around them, and well aware of their place in society.
So clearly the time has come. Whatever the outcome of the debate, the campaign for votes at 16 will move forward. Because if you believe in a United Kingdom, it’s important we have equity in democracy too.
[Last section originally published in Progress Online Friday 3rd November]