Is now the time for a new parliamentary body, such as an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), to enable cross-party dialogue to explore consensus on lowering the voting age to 16 with measures to sustain it? Votes at 16 for all elections is achievable but not inevitable. It is such an important constitutional change it demands a great political and public consensus to be sustainable [lesson learnt from Brexit]. This article explores why and ways to move forward.
Even if enough Conservative MPs now support the idea of ‘Votes at 16’ to give it a majority in the House of Commons, there is more work to be done to map out implementation and avoid a repeat of party-political filibustering. I believe its not enough to have a narrow majority because lowering the age of the franchise is such a significant change that it needs to transcend party-politics, command popular support and be implemented properly. This needs to be reflected in a cross-party alliance of arguments, not just individual votes. A step-change from the traditional adversarial stalemate, to a place of persuasion, preparation and planning, following measured dialogue between stakeholders. Its within reach.
This could be facilitated in several ways, such as a Government appointed Youth Citizenship Commission a Green Paper consultation, or a select committee inquiry. However – given that the Government of the day is opposed to the measure, or even exploring the options – it falls to those outside Government, but inside Parliament, to bridge the gap. One way to do this would be a dedicated new All Party Parliamentary Group (1)
APPGs are informal cross-party groups that have no official status within Parliament. They are run by and for Members of the Commons and Lords, though many choose to involve individuals and organisations from outside Parliament in their administration and activities. There are hundreds of groups listed in the Register of APPGs, and they usually meet in Committee rooms at Westminster. The balance of MPs to stakeholders varies greatly.
Campaigners can become planners and use a new APPG as a base-camp for dialogue with Ministers. A good example of a similar (and youth-led) mechanism was the Youth Select Committee on Votes at 16 (2) which sat in Parliament in 2014. It produced an evidenced-based report on the feasibility and implementation of votes at 16, and got a formal response from the Cabinet Office. It’s a report well worth revisiting, and the model of inquiry adapting.
Votes at 16 – Plus
I believe the time has come for more considered exploration of the issues associated with Votesat16 (the ‘Plus’), with a view to addressing them rather than opposing them. A cross-party pathway to youth democratic engagement, with lowering the voting age as the focus and lever, but with an wider eye on the supplementary, and some would say, conditional measures that will be needed to support it, and a fair hearing to the challenges that might stop it. Not just a platform for one side of the argument, nor a rallying point for current campaigners, but a place of scrutiny, reflection and expertise, adding value – the plus!.
The same old arguments are not changing minds, but that has not stopped them being repeated and rebutted. I believe sustained reform requires a broader consensus based on evidence and persuasion, and if there are outstanding issues such as inconsistent age differences for other rights, then the case for votes at 16 needs to justified or disproved in its own context (such as citizenship) with consensus around what it means to be a citizen. This means addressing the issues of adulthood, maturity, capacity, education and experience – and if any of these are a compelling obstacle – to explain why they are not relevant, or surmountable, using evidence. MPs, parliament, government, the media and public opinion need to support informed legislation above party politics. These broader issues are also what I refer to as ‘plus’ in the Votesat16 debate.
Youth voice informing and influencing
For 10 years I have witnessed, first-hand, ‘votes at 16’ campaigns from the point of view of young campaigners, and shared their frustration at the party political impasse that has blocked progress to legislation. These are usefully documented in the House of Commons Briefing Paper ‘Voting Age’ 2016 (3). Every year, a new wave of young representatives and campaigners, feeling that their voices are still unheard by politicians, have renewed their mandate from their peers and call on decision-makers to introduce reform, (Scottish Youth Parliament, UK Youth Parliament, National Union of Students, Funky Dragon). As well as the success in Scotland and Wales, local young campaigners through youth councils have also persuaded 28 local councils (4) to pass motions in support of votes at 16 .
Young people took the initiative in holding their own inquiry (Youth Select Committee on Votes at 16) and continue to inform and influence the development of legislation (Oldham Youth Council worked to shape Jim McMahon’s Bill) and the British Youth Council continue to coordinate the Votes at 16 Coalition. (5)
Given that this #youthvoice lobby represent the very ‘constituency’ affected, their input and role within a new APPG on Votes at 16 is critical.
Bills provide opportunities for cross-party support
The last attempt to hold a ‘debate’ in Parliament, was at the second reading of a private members Bill (6) on young people’s enfranchisement (Jim McMahon MP ). It did have cross-party sponsorship, and at one point MPs from all sides were preparing speeches to add value to potential legislation. The Bill itself included proposals to provide education for young voters, with detailed amendments to Citizenship Education. The Bill and Briefing is worthy of ongoing evaluation by the Department for Education and Cabinet Office who would be responsible for implementing it. However, hopes of consensus foundered on a bad-tempered party-political exchange in the House of Commons when it was talked out (filibustered) in November 2017. I was in the gallery. It was not this Parliaments finest moment. Indeed the whole procedure of private members Bills needs urgent review.
Next up, with a little more cross-party support, is Peter Kyle’s MP private members Bill (7), due for a reading in May 2018. This proposal includes auto-enrolment for young voters (but does not include the McMahon votes + education measures, not yet anyway but these could be introduced via amendment should the Bill progress).
However, there are several signs of hope that the landscape and narrative are changing, which have prompted me to call for politicians to come together to set up a new APPG. Who will make the first move?
1. Visible cross-party support now includes former Conservatives Cabinet Ministers
Whilst there have been some longstanding Conservative supporters of votes at 16 legislation, such as Peter Bottomley MP, who has been a supporter for years, co-sponsored the McMahon Bill but didn’t get the chance to speak in the debate but has since written in the Evening Standard predicting Votes at 16 during this Parliament. He has been joined by some significant recent converts. One of the co-sponsors of the Kyle Bill is Nicky Morgan MP, a former Secretary State for Education, who re-iterated her support in February 2018, with an appeal to Conservative to embrace and get on with Votes at 16 in Conservative Home (8). She has since been joined by another former Education Secretary, Justine Greening MP, saying that the argument for Votes at 16 is not something that should be dismissed at all (9). These two join the ongoing support of Ruth Davidson MSP, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, and Sarah Wollaston MP Chair of the Health Select Committee. All potential members of a new post-May cabinet?
2. Youth Citizenship Commissions and the Tonge/Mycock Leverhulme Project 2018-20
2.1 I prepared evidence for the last Youth Citizenship Commission in 2008, and was impressed with its research and outputs, including the final report ‘Making The Connection’. Although it did not recommend Votes at 16 at the time, the Commission produced a body of evidence and a benchmark. The report is still frequently quoted by opponents, so I have been calling for its findings to be updated with the re-established of a new Youth Commission in 2018 to address an agenda of youth engagement reform, including Votes at 16. This included a call for auto-voter enrolment, a universal democracy curriculum, and an exploration of the relationships between the voting age and other age entitlements/restrictions.
2.2 In December it was announced that the Leverhulme Trust would be funding Professor Tonge (Liverpool University) and Dr Mycock (Huddersfield University) to undertaking a new research project (12) to explore whether the voting age should be lowered. It has the potential to cover much of the same ground as a Youth Citizenship Commission, and will reference previous research, perhaps commission new research, and report in 2020. Any work done by an APPG could feed into it, hear updates from it, and ensure a line of communication exists between academia and policy development.
3 Acknowledgement of #youthvoice representation by front and back benches
3.1 For the first time that I remember, Prime Ministers Question Time not only referred to Votes at 16, but both sides applauded and recognised the work of the UK Youth Parliament in engaging young people in democracy (by deputies David Lidington MP and Emily Thornberry MP (31/1/18). The membership of the UK Youth Parliament spans both non-voting 16/17 year-olds and 18 year-olds, and in their annual debate in November 2017, again voted to prioritise campaigns for a New Age for Democracy ‘Votes at 16’ and a ‘Curriculum for Life’ for 2018 (13).
3.2 This was based on a mandate of nearly a million young voters who have consistently supporters for these campaigns as priorities in recent years. This will hopefully be a reminder of that fact the momentum for the campaigning has been sustained by youth-led energy, who potential to convert to #youthvote has not been lost on politicians with the reported #youthquake 2017 a wake up call. Frequently unreported and under-estimated, the views of young people are critical whether they are credited or not.
3.3 Young people’s representatives have earned the right to be heard in Parliament, to inform and influence the detail of legislation, preparation and guidance, and this will be helped with first two Youth Parliament graduates and supporters of Votes at 16, entering the House of Commons as MPs in 2017, Lloyd Russel-Moyle MP and Danielle Rowley MP.
4. The growth of youth participation in APPGs
4.1 I’ve been attending APPGs in Parliament which welcome young people, since 1998, when I first went along to a new APPG for ‘looked after children and careleavers’. This group, which has consistently championed youthvoice to power for the last 20 years, featured a rare appearance by the new Children’s Minister Nadhim Zadawi MP) when I was there last week.
4.2 I’ve also attended or followed other similar groups on: students, children, youth affairs, better Brexit for young people, and democratic participation. Many of these meetings have been in the evening to accommodate youth attendance, but they don’t always attract a wide range of MPs themselves. Their impact and reach has been improved where they have: an up to date website and twitter page which records their findings; adopted an inquiry model, taking evidence and producing a report; met during the day when a substantial number of MPs can attend.
4.3 They are further strengthened when they are clearly cross party co-chaired, have a relationship to the Select Committee that overlaps terms of reference, have a facilitator to prepare/broker dialogue between the participants of all ages, and a commitment by members to reference them in their formal work and speeches in Parliament.
Young Voices Heard
I can see a growing interest in taking the prospect of lowering the voting age seriously, to the extent that Parliament will either embrace it, or slam on the brakes. Either way, stakeholders will need to tread carefully in how they frame their narrative to prospective young voters. It is quite possible that after the next General Election there will be a Government and majority in the House of Commons that favours the measure and will reveal just how seriously those commitment to it has been. (Sometimes in opposition its possible to pledge measures that then prove harder to implement when in Government – such as opposing student fees). So there is time now to start planning and talking ‘to’ young people, not ‘about’ them will help. Democracy is increasingly an informed dialogue, not just an election campaign. Young voices heard or unheard, will be critical choice, before, during, and after this end-game for the Votes at 16 campaign, in brokering a sustained new age for democracy.
I believe a new All Party Parliamentary Group 2018, will not only, provide an ongoing safe and shared space to bring together stakeholders, young and old, political and academic, to replace the win/lose campaigning and adversarial exchanges that have proved unsuccessful for decades, but will also, allow those most affected, youth people/voters, to return to the centre of the debate with an equal voice to MPs, rather than to be frustrated spectators in the public gallery.
FUTURE ARTICLES – ‘Young Voices for Votes at 16, new times new arguments’ ; ‘Democracy is a Dialogue not just an Election, sustaining the Youthvote’ ‘Young Voices Heard in Select Committees’; ‘Young Voices Heard in the Commonwealth’; ‘Young Voices still heard – The Youth Senate: House of Representatives and minorities 18-24 yrs’; ‘Young Voices Heard in the Boardroom’. Follow @jamescatchats for updates.
- Parliament – All-Party Parliamentary Groups http://www.parliament.uk/about/mps-and-lords/members/apg/
- Youth Select Committee 2014 http://www.parliament.uk/business/news/2014/november/lower-voting-age-to-16-recommends-youth-select-committee/
- ‘Voting Age’ Parliament Library Briefing http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN01747/SN01747.pdf
- Votes at 16 Coalition http://www.votesat16.org/about/supportive-politicians/
- Votes at 16 Coalition http://www.votesat16.org/
- Representation of the People (Young People’s Enfranchisement and Education) Bill 2017-19 Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57) Vicky Foxcroft, on behalf of Jim McMahon, supported by Jeremy Corbyn, Tom Watson, Peter Kyle, Diana Johnson, Lucy Powell, Sir Peter Bottomley, Stephen Gethins, Jo Swinson, Jonathan Edwards and Caroline Lucas, presented a Bill to reduce the voting age to 16 in parliamentary and other elections; to make provision about young people’s education in citizenship and the constitution; and for connected purposes.
- Representation of the People (Young People’s Enfranchisement) Bill Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57) Peter Kyle, supported by Nicky Morgan, Norman Lamb, Sir Peter Bottomley, Rachel Reeves, Ruth Smeeth, Wes Streeting, Anna Turley, Holly Lynch, Conor McGinn, Caroline Lucas and Jim McMahon, presented a Bill to reduce the voting age to 16 in parliamentary and other elections; to make provision for auto-enrolment onto the electoral register for people aged 16 to 24; to make provision about the use of educational establishments as polling stations; and for connected purposes.
- Conservative Home 2/18 https://www.conservativehome.com/thecolumnists/2018/02/nicky-morgan-conservatives-helped-to-deliver-votes-for-women-now-we-should-provide-votes-at-16.html
- Sunday Times interview 4/2/18
- Making the Connection https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/media/livacuk/politics/documents/YCC_Final_Report.pdf
- A Strong Youth Vote is in the National Interest 2/5/17 https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/strong-youthvote-national-interest-james-cathcart/
- Huddersfield University website https://www.hud.ac.uk/news/2017/december/119kgranttoevaluatewhether16-year-oldsshouldgetthevote/
- UK Youth Parliament – campaign 2018 http://www.ukyouthparliament.org.uk/2018/news/uk-youth-parliament-demand-age-democracy/