This week, I led a debate in parliament on the issue of votes at 16. Extending the vote to 16-year-olds is not a new idea, but it is gaining momentum within the Labour movement.
Looking at the things you can do at 16 provides a justification to the question ‘why 16?’ — as opposed to any other age. 16-year-olds contribute to society in many ways. They can leave school to work, and pay tax on their earnings. They can join the army to represent our country. They can become the director of a company. They can consent to sexual relationships and legally become parents. These are only a handful of the ways that society treats sixteen and seventeen year olds as adults, but without giving them a democratic voice.
Bringing the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds has three main arguments. Firstly, it is about galvanising a new generation of politically engaged people who believe politics can change their lives and the lives of people around them. Secondly, it is about recognising the contributions that young people already can and do make to society. Finally, it is about addressing the democratic deficit we are facing as a society. Put frankly, people do not trust the political system.
Allowing 16-year-olds to vote will help more young people become interested in politics. To change our politics, we must hear the voices of young people. Not just on the issues that affect them immediately, such as education or tuition fees, but on the issues that interest them too. The young people seeking a job, the young people campaigning on mental health, the young people volunteering to help elderly people in care homes: their voices are all important. Offering the vote to 16-year-olds will help to create a politics more representative of youth views on a range of issues.
16-year-olds also deserve recognition for their contributions to society. Many already give through volunteering, caring responsibilities, work, and more. As Toni Paxford of Rotherham youth cabinet told me: ‘people sometimes forget that young people can contribute just as much as, or sometimes more than some adults. MPs should remember that “votes at 16” isn’t about what signals giving the vote sends, as much as the lack of appreciation you feel by not being given the vote. It’s like your voice doesn’t count.’
Our society should be structured to help young people engage with democracy in the lead up to their first vote, starting with strengthened citizenship education. When I discussed citizenship education with Rotherham’s young people, Hannah Kong, a girl in her final year of school, told me that in all of her secondary education, her citizenship classes had probably discussed politics only three or four times. There is a strong case for addressing this and using citizenship to teach politics from a neutral perspective, similar to that of religious studies.
Lack of knowledge is often used as an argument against votes for 16-year-olds, but that is regressive. We should give 16-year-olds the knowledge and opportunity to step up and use their vote to the best of their ability, rather than using this as an argument for turning them away at the door.
Some campaigners have even argued that we should have ballot boxes in schools, meaning that young people cast their first vote in a welcoming and supportive environment. Research has shown that if someone votes in their first election after they reach the age of majority, they are much more likely to carry on voting, which is important when at the last election, only 44 per cent of those aged 18-24 voted.
For me, the issue is not about whether 16-year-olds are mature enough to have a vote: it’s about how we create an environment that allows our young people to learn about and engage in politics so that it matters to them for life.
Sarah Champion MP is PPS to the shadow secretary of state for education
Photo: UK Parliament
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