The voice of a new generation

By Samah Khalil | 01 May 2018

We welcome the growing debate on votes at 16 – it shows that the issue is on the table and that young people’s voices can’t be ignored.

Since our local MP Jim McMahon championed votes at 16 during his private members bill campaign we’ve seen the debate really take off. Whatever the viewpoint, all is good for moving the debate on. Yet some recent arguments (see Claire Fox’s Viewpoint article in The MJ 8 March) can’t be left to circle around unchallenged.

A key reference point for those opposed to lowering the voting age is the 18+ age limit for many other activities, such as buying alcohol, gambling, watching ‘adult’ films and purchasing knives and fireworks. Let’s be clear – these limits are there to protect our physical and mental wellbeing, they have nothing whatsoever to do with voting. Nobody of any age can walk into a shop and buy unlimited amounts of aspirin. Let’s not confuse the Government’s responsibility to protect public health with the right to vote.

Recently our resolve on this campaign has also been questioned. Votes at 16 is apparently a hollow campaign as there have been ‘no pubescent riots making the establishment quiver’. There was even a suggestion that comparing the campaign to that waged by the Suffragettes (as Emily Thornberry did at Prime Minister’s Questions in February) is an insult to the latter’s embattled fight.

If we, as ‘yoofs’ took to the streets like the Suffragettes, it would be counterproductive to our campaign. This is the 21st century – we use social media to campaign on what we want and to connect with supporters.

Our campaign runs deeper than just ‘gripes of unfairness uttered sulkily in school debates’. We consult young people across the UK every year. In 2016 over 110,000 young people voted for Votes at 16 with another 100,000 young people voting for it 2017.

And we meet with our MPs and, in Oldham’s case, convince them to have votes at 16 as the topic for their private members bill. This doesn’t make MPs ‘fawning sycophants’. It shows they listen; they care; and they stand up for their constituents in Parliament. It negates the need to deploy the kind of tactics used by the Suffragettes, who weren’t fortunate enough to have a majority of MPs fighting their corner.

Our lack of presence ‘on the streets’ is a more sign that we are winning this campaign than one of apathy among young people.

Some have also claimed that the youth votes isn’t the answer to revitalising democracy. But bizarrely no critic gives a convincing alternative to what that answer is. We support lowering the voting age to go hand-in-hand with compulsory political education in schools from the age of 14 – for the first time in history! It will mean future generations of young people have a better foundation of political understanding than any generation before them. It will ingrain the habit of voting, as well as the importance of civic duty from an early age. It’s not a silver bullet (people and politicians must take responsibility for boosting the vote) but we’re yet to see a credible alternative from our critics, and we are convinced our approach will make a radical difference.

One other question is being left out: what do people think will happen if 16 year olds are given the vote? Some have discussed creating a ‘malleable electorate’ ripe for the picking by political taking a far right or far left stance. With the recent news around harvested Facebook accounts and the EU referendum it would appear this is not just a young person’s problem. People of any age or background can be influenced to vote one way. It is up to those people to take responsibility to remain informed and to understand the issues that matter to them.

Ultimately the proof will be in the pudding. Why not follow the example of Wales and Scotland and start by lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections in England? We are ready, we do want the vote and we promise we won’t break democracy.

Samah Khalil is chair of the Oldham Youth Council

The Oldham Youth Council chose votes at 16 as the topic of Jim McMahon’s current private members bill. They are a member of the Votes at 16 Coalition.

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