Votes at 16

By Tony Allen

At the Union Council meeting on the 23/11/16, a motion was carried which gained a great deal less attention than that about poppy sales on campus. It was Motion 2008: The fight for Votes at 16. Proposed by Cameron Mellowes of UEA Labour and seconded by the SU’s Campaigns and Democracy officer Amy Rust, an overwhelming majority of 75% of councillors in attendance voted to enshrine into Union policy our support for lowering the minimum voting age in UK elections from 18 to 16.

I was delighted, in my first Union Council meeting, to be able to contribute to such a significant step in the right direction. However, of course this is only the start of the hard work. The SU has been going through a tough few weeks publicity-wise, but this is truly something to smile about. Here is why I feel so strongly about the campaign and look forward to participating in any way I can:

My personal experience of electoral injustice at the age of seventeen informs my view heavily. On Friday 8th May 2015, they day after the General Election, I clearly remember sitting in my A Level politics classroom before my teacher arrived for the morning’s lesson. My class watched BBC News on our projector screen, rapt, as Ed Balls lost his seat. But by then we already knew that the Conservatives were waltzing away with a Parliamentary majority- some were delighted, others distraught.

Whatever the result of the election, it would have rung hollow for me. I was bitterly disappointed with it, but more deeply with my helpless inability to have been able to register my opinion. What could have been a brilliantly encouraging introduction to the world of politics outside the textbook for our class turned out to be little more than a damp squib.

When we next get the chance to vote in a General Election, most of us will be in full time employment (or not, as the case may unfortunately be). Mr Smith’s politics lessons, and the passion they engendered, will be a distant memory.

I hate the thought that some people who might have started the habit of a lifetime by voting when inspired by our fierce common-room debates might not bother five years on.

The global political landscape is in a period of unprecedented upheaval and most British born UEA students will have had the chance to participate by voting in the EU referendum. But we can’t forget about votes at 16 just because it wouldn’t make a difference to us any more.

That is why I was so glad that the Union Council motion passed with such a resoundingly positive vote. Even when you look at the 24% who didn’t back the motion (rounded to the nearest %), only 10% voted outright against, with 14% abstaining.

The recent NUS demonstration, attended by UEA students, has thrown the spotlight on cuts and fee rises made by the government. It’s a tragedy that many of the new intake of freshers didn’t get the chance to have their say in the election of this government who are imposing austerity on them and could continue to do so unabated for the rest of our undergraduate careers.

And you wonder why young people have a reputation for political passivity and disenfranchisement.

Scottish 16-and-17-year-olds were granted the vote in their independence referendum, by all accounts with great success. So, I’m sure they were as perplexed in 2016 as we were envious of them in 2014 that every under-18 was denied a vote on the EU. The final referendum result would probably not have changed had the franchise been extended to 16-and-17-year-olds. However, it would have gained more legitimacy in my eyes.

The flippant arguments made after the EU referendum for an upper age limit for voting are of course completely absurd. But isn’t normalised age discrimination a key excuse for failing to listen to the well-reasoned arguments of young people to extend the franchise? These things have got to work both ways.

Thankfully for the sake of sensible debate, not all arguments against extending the vote are so condescending as Julia Hartley-Brewer’s infamous diatribe in the Daily Telegraph. Dr Andrew Mycock has argued reasonably that education must be improved first.

But that would be so easy to do. Even a sixteen-year-old could probably make a good fist of suggesting how.

General Studies at A Level needed not to be scrapped, as it has been in the latest cull of so-called ‘soft’ subjects (not so, but that’s another article), but instead to be reformed to make it exciting, accessible, and more weighted towards real-life politics. Form time activities in schools need to be changed to concentrate on providing an objective, rounded political education. It’s not about ramming politics down students’ throats- we have compulsory education for a reason.

I don’t buy for one second the arguments that it would be too difficult/expensive/time consuming (delete as appropriate) to revolutionise political education in schools. Improving and standardising what’s already in place with regards to citizenship education will go a long way towards ensuring young people are equipped to use their votes.

If only our elected representatives had to appeal to voters in the traditional Sixth Form age range, then they might put more time and effort into exploring such beneficial, student-focused education reforms…

In essence, my support for votes at 16 can be boiled down to the fact that life nowadays for young people is just not the same as it was in 1969, when the most recent Representation of the People Act lowered the minimum voting age from 21 to 18.

Education is perhaps the single biggest example which cements my optimism in the ability of 16 and 17-year-olds to vote wisely and respect our democratic institution.

Arguably the biggest responsibility on teenage shoulders now is that of attaining those all-important A*-C grades in Maths and English GCSEs- necessary not only for many careers, but also for regular entry into UEA.

Aside from those GCSEs being hugely important to the individual student, the careers of teachers and school staff are on the line and effectively decided by a group of 16-year-olds and their independent decisions on whether to engage and revise. Why are our MPs’ careers any more sacrosanct than those of their fellow public servants in the classroom?

At fifteen or sixteen we choose A Levels, or other post-16 routes, that will effectively rule us in or out of particular careers. We decide where our next steps should be, and have a chance to move away from the safe confines of secondary school and pave the way for our futures. So why would we be any less able, interested or willing to decide on the future of our country too?

Image from NUS votes at 16 campaign

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