How would MPs vote if there were a free vote this session? ‘Votes at 16 – Are we ready, willing and able?‘ is a question not just for young people, but for MPs and society. In this Paper, first published on 27/03/18 the author asks ‘Are we about to enter a new age for democracy? Is that ‘age’ to be sixteen and will it be more than about voting, and encompass a broader agenda of democratic dialogue between young people and politicians?” Reviewing ‘what’s new’ and exploring ‘what’s needed’ in the Votes at 16 debate going forward this Paper was first presented to the UK Political Studies Association Annual Conference, Cardiff, March 2018 and a referenced copy is available on request, ahead of publication. It is shared here in advance of calls for a new All Party Parliament Group on Votes at 16. Check https://youngvoicesheard.org.uk for updates.
Click ‘continue reading’ for full Text of Paper and scroll to Appendix One for accompanying notes for details of MPs.
Votes at 16 – Are we ready, willing and able?
Whilst campaigners, including young people themselves, continue to claim that 16 and 17-year-olds are ready, willing, and able to vote, there persists a genuine unease as to whether they should even be given the right in the first place, and reservations that they are sufficiently ready or able to take on the responsibility. How prepared is society and public opinion to believe their ‘children’ should be ‘allowed’ to have this right? So far, the focus of the debate has been on arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’, and largely overlooks the progress made in democratic youth engagement by other means, much of it youth-led, and supported by many NGOs, local authorities, pockets of Government and Parliament education and outreach services.
Nurturing this youth-voice movement is potentially an alternative (or complementary process) to lowering the voting age, but the progress it has made is already empowering the next generation of 16 and 17 year-olds to be more confidant and assertive about their right to be heard, and to want vote. Yet, in the Votes at 16 debate itself, many of the ‘old’ arguments repeated by the usual suspects are not changing enough minds significantly. This, in my view, is due to more ‘transmit’ than ‘receive’ on both sides, a desire to out-vote the other side, rather than to make space for informed reflection and to address the challenges.
There has been progress, with ‘democracy education’ being added persuasively added to the mix, sometimes suggested as a pre-condition, to address the question of being ‘ready and able’. This was not enough to make a difference in the latest attempt to introduce UK-wide legislation, when it was included in the Representation of the People (Young People’s Enfranchisement and Education) Bill, a Private Members Bill introduced by Jim McMahon MP in 2017, (it became apparent that party politics, rather than reasoned arguments and evidence, resulted in the Bill being ‘talked’ out to avoid a vote on 3/11/17), but it may influence public opinion. We need space for all-party/public dialogue.
In this paper, drawing on first-hand experience of several youth-led Votes at 16 campaigns over the last ten years, (talking to stakeholders in Government, shadow-team, backbenchers and other stakeholders), the author suggests that now may be the time to open up the debate to fresh input, to make space for decision-makers to catch up with available evidence and new research, for politicians to engage more earnestly with academics and youth-voice direct, and for the public to be informed. There could be a political window of opportunity during this Parliament, as we approach the point where a majority of MPs in House of Commons are likely to be in favour of lowering the voting age, which will draw more attention to other opportunities for engagement, and for broader reform (before the next General Election) that will enable youth engagement in democracy to be sustained in a way that is above party-politics, within which ‘lowering the voting age’ proposition is only one part.
The paper also explores some of the fresh arguments on both sides that have not yet been fully articulated. It’s an attempt to move on from the narrative of ‘campaigning’, that has ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, to a round-table of dialogue, persuasion and consensus. It builds on the case for a revival of the Youth Citizenship Commission (last deployed in 2009 ), or similar body (All Party Parliamentary Group on Votes at 16 ), but this time as a ‘standing body’, to review the evidence, commission research to fill the gaps, and perhaps crucially, identify what needs to be different to changes minds, informing a proper debate in Parliament, the public and the media. Such a standing body would be best placed to then advise on implementation should that be the informed consequence of its deliberations.
The paper starts by highlighting a background narrative, largely unreported by mainstream media, of young people finding their voice and using it in numerous local and national initiatives, mobilising a broader base of support amongst young people for ‘votes at 16’ , and asks whether many of them now see the ‘votes at 16’ campaign as symbolic of their right to be heard in politics, and whether a rejection of it, is a rejection of their voice. For example, a week after the McMahon’s Bills House of Commons debate, young representatives of the UK Youth Parliament sat in the same chamber to debate and voted again for Votes at 16 to be their national campaign in 2018, referring to opposing MPs arguments as ‘stale’, ‘patronising’ and ‘immature’. Indeed, the Deputy Speaker, had to call shouting MPs to order during that heated exchanges in November declaring “This is NOT a football match, [shouts] we are having a DEBATE!”. It lasted no more than an hour after lunch.
Young people, whose mandate is growing through the Youth Parliaments UK popular vote of nearly a million each year in the Make Your Mark ballot , deserve more.
This paper challenges those on both sides of the argument to take stock and raise their game.
A/ Introduction and background, my experience of the #youthvoice movement
1. For the first time that I’m aware of, Prime Minister’s Question Time (31/1/18) not only referred to Votes at 16, but 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). 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).
2. I was fortunate enough to serve the UK Youth Parliament as CEO (of the British Youth Council that managed it, 2008-2016) which involved us providing briefings for their youth-led campaigns, brokering their views to decision-makers in Parliament and the media, and listening to their frustration at ‘not being taken seriously enough’. My current work now focuses on targeting decision-makers to work on getting ‘Youth Voices Heard’ . This paper will bring my perspective based on that experience, including that of working with other young people in a number of previous roles, including those less able to articulate a view, the cynical, the disengaged, and harder to reach.
3. There has been much written about Votes at 16, with periodic surges of interest following when someone tried to introduce a Bill in parliament. I have noticed an increase in article and blogs recently, perhaps prompted by the talk about ‘youth-quake’ following the Brexit referendum aftermath and General Election of 2017, fuelled by cross-party support for two Private Members Bills (McMahon and Kyle) during this Parliament. Consequently I will be aiming to avoid duplicating or detailing many of the familiar arguments and references already recorded by campaigners and the media , as well as the issues described by academics, in the UK and overseas . [For those interested in the detail of Parliamentary measures and arguments I’d refer them to the House of Commons Briefing Paper ‘Voting Age’ 2016 ].
4. I’m approaching this from the policy development angle, calling for better preparation and consensus around what happens next, thinking ahead to what needs to change to ensure reforms are implemented in a context of better democratic engagement for all . In my current role I have been calling for more stakeholders and the media to update their evidence base to move this debate forward. So, I very much welcome the opportunity and focus being provided by the latest research project on Votes at 16, recently announced by Tonge and Mycock and funded by Leverhulme Trust , and I hope that this paper will suggest areas of study and stakeholders to include be included them and others.
5. I started out as a youth worker, juvenile justice worker, social worker, and coordinator of employment programmes (Kent), before becoming a regional trainer, project manager (south-east) and practice development coordinator (England), and finally a national programme manager (UK), mentor and chief executive (UK) in the field of youth empowerment, participation and campaigning (Europe, Commonwealth). The ages of my career have mirrored the ages of many children and young people from 12 to 25. They have been from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, education, and ability, including people in and leaving care, young homeless, young people with low basic skills, ex-offenders, unemployed, refugees, minorities, under-graduates, employed, post-graduates, young politicians and entrepreneurs . They have included the hopeful and hopeless, the passionate and the apathetic, the advantaged and the hardest to reach, across all parts of the United Kingdom, and from around the world, both those living in the UK, and those I’ve met when working overseas.
6. Whilst my roles required me to write or edit good practice guidance and standards (Preparation for Adulthood ; Look Beyond the Label ; Mentoring, Careleavers ) I did not have the time until now, to reflect on what these experiences have taught me, and in particular attempt to capture the lessons learnt, and understand the youth perspective from numerous youth-led initiatives, and to draw conclusions about how young people can be better supported to engage with society, and how society can enable and empower this to happen .
7. It’s no longer a case of young people settling to be the leaders of tomorrow, they want to be the leaders today. Some are here already and creating a ripple effect. The status quo is not an option. I’ve concluded so far that votesat16 is only one part of a bigger picture, that needs encouraging with a range of reforms, with youth-input, to ensure that the amazing potential of young people as more active participants and leaders in society is properly encouraged, realised and sustained.
Votes at 16 is symbol of the youthvoice movements frustration at not being heard. Its at the front, pushing and making way for other ways for young people wanting to engage in democracy.
8. The reason I’m focusing on ‘votes at 16’ in this paper, is my hypothesis that it has become something of a symbol and flagship of young peoples’ aspiration, to have their views and campaigns heard. The more they are empowered to do so, drawing on the research and evidence themselves, the more their calls for change will increase in credibility, mandate and impact. I want to focus on the very means by which young people are able to raise these issues, conduct campaigns independently, and inform and influence public policy and practice. Whilst there has always been groups of young activists (student leaders and campaigners) lobbying and campaign, the rise of popularly ‘elected’ youth-led democratic structures across the UK, (School Councils, Youth Forums and Parliaments) has developed models of integrated dialogue with decision-makers and politicians at local and national level. Over the years significant numbers of 16 and 17 year-olds have been voting, not just for people, but on issues, and have become aware of the potential to focus the minds of politicians on their issues, and repeatedly championed Votes at 16 campaigns to drive this agenda forward.
The youth-voice movement has been growing in capacity and reach in recent years.
9. When I reflect on the media reports of ‘youth-quake’, Brexit and the General Election youth vote, I’m sometimes left with the impression that a previously apathetic generation has been woken up by recent events or individuals and voter-registration campaigns. But from my point of view, young people have been willing and able to engage with issues for some time, but were overlooked, or dismissed as a minority of the usual suspects, activist, politics students, head-boys and head-girls, who were not representative of the broader youth population. Yet the numbers getting involved , not just through the elected youth councils and parliaments, but online campaign pages and platforms, indicated that young people are indeed interested in the issues. If fewer (than other age groups) voted for politicians who were not talking to them, this was not a reflection of their interest in the issues.
10. It’s also produced a generation of candidates with the experience of campaigning and representation. Many have joined parties and become councillors and two were elected as MPs in 2017. As this digitally connected generation grows up with its networks and followers intact, and I would not be surprised if a lot more young leaders and their peer electorate, starts to populate the House of Commons with greater gender equality and minority representation.
‘Talk To Us, Not About Us’
11. ‘Talk To Us, Not About Us’ was a campaign message of the British Youth Council (BYC) to politicians in the General Elections of 2010 and 2015 , and 2017 . It is possible that when you have a message directed to the young electorate, with a youth manifesto, and you appear authentic, then you can mobilise support, particularly when that manifesto responds to the issues young leaders have been highlighting through their elected representatives, research and polls?
12. Something to say + Skills to say it + Opportunities to be heard = Youth-led change
13. Youth-led campaigns, and youth-voice organisations like The British Youth Council and UK Youth Parliament have been developing this model for some time in terms of informing and influencing existing decision-makers, mainly targeting local authorities via local youth councils, and the Government via the UK Youth Parliament and national BYC campaigns. They were challenged to be more than a talking shop and demonstrate both their diverse representativeness and their mandate. Consequently, working in partnership with regional Youth Work Units, Local Authorities, devolved nation youth participation structures like the Scottish Youth Parliament, NI Youth Forum, Funky Dragon (Wales), data was gathered to show that the representatives (in youth councils and youth parliaments) did match the profile of the DCLG Social Deprivation Index , and that the priority campaigns were chosen following a series of local, regional, national debates open to a UK-wide popular vote of young people aged 11-18, in the Make Your Mark Ballot . They have developed a growing mandate (through Make Your Mark surveys/Table 1) to produce a series of evidence based inquiries (Youth Select Committees ) that now get a formal Government response.
14. The priority topics were – Transport, Curriculum for Life, Votes at 16, Mental Health, Racism and Religious discrimination, and Body Image.
15. Having read the written submissions, and witnessed the oral evidence of five inquiries, I was able to agree with, and back many of the consequent campaigns, because they had both an evidence base and a mandate. I’ve been urging political policy makers and election campaigners to include these topics in their youth offer. In 2014 the topic was Votes at 16 and is usual for their inquiries, the young people called upon academics to give evidence. It was during this inquiry that I realised the lack of up to date evidence available on votes at 16. The last major inquiry was in 2009, the Youth Citizenship Commission , and that many of the arguments for and against the vote, remain the same.
16. I want to also acknowledge the many other youth-led campaigns who have been finding their voice that are being realised through the platform of the digital age. Using Twitter, Facebook or websites there has been a growth of new youth-led campaigns, platforms, groups, societies, even companies. (examples include: ‘My Life My Say’, ‘Talk Politics’, ‘ShoutOutUK’, ‘ChallengesNI’, ‘Patchwork Foundation’, ‘Youth Politics’ ). The devolved youth-led parliaments in Scotland is now having regular meetings with the First Minister/Scottish Cabinet, in Wales a youth parliament is about to be established, and in Greater Manchester the Mayor has initiated a Combined Youth Authority https://www.greatermanchester-ca.gov.uk to ‘give young people in the area the opportunity to have their voices heard and influence GMCA policy and decision making’.
17. There are individuals too, and example being young campaigner and writer, Kenny Imafidon, who produced a series of reports on youth political engagement including one report on Votes at 16, when he was 20, ‘Does politics matter to Young People’ 2014 , which is not only a summary of arguments on both sides (he recommends the vote is lowered), but more importantly an example of a new confidence of young people to be a leading contributor in the debate. Despite this, the media still focuses on interviewing politicians, which rather gives the impression that it has been politicians driving it, whereas some parties had to be persuaded over a number of years.
18. There have also been a number of organisations, (as well as Local Authorities and their youth services) in the voluntary sector who have actively supported and encouraged young people to find their voice, both within their organisations and in national lobbying and representation. (e.g. the National Youth Agency, Girl Guiding, the Scouts, Bite the Ballot, and UK Youth) The ‘youth social action’ movement launched by the coalition Government also recognises that youth-led campaigning is a form of ‘volunteering’, for example a team of 16 and 17 year-olds on National Citizen Service can run a ‘campaign’ to fulfil their ‘service’ requirement. Youth-led campaigning by the ‘Step Up to Serve’/ ‘#iwill’ campaigns to increase volunteering backed by the two major parties and led by HRH Prince of Wales, and coalitions such as Generation Change (network for youth social action). These join the more familiar names such a National Union of Students and the youth wings of political parties in providing a range of opportunities for young people to get involved.
19. However, despite this progress, its been harder for some parts of the youth-voice movement to mobilise the youth vote at general elections because of restrictions on charitable activity and the purdah of local authorities who support youth councils and parliaments, and more recently the chilling effect of the Lobbying Act 2014 on charities that support youth voice campaigning. This does not cover voter-registration campaigns which several organisations pursue in partnership with the Electoral Commission, and provided spending limits are observed and it’s the aim of the charity in the first place, specific campaigns can be raised and the position of various parties published (et Votes at 16/Mental Health).
20. At each of the last three General Elections, young people (through the British Youth Council structures) have targeted parties by producing Manifestos for their vision for the coming Parliaments, based on views of members, and calling on parties to produce a youth manifesto and a commitment to appointing a Cabinet level Youth Minister. Other youth organisations produced their manifestos and lobbied as well, and in 2015 two parties (Green and Labour) responded by producing their own Youth Manifestos, and in 2017 a refreshed Labour youth offer was communicated direct to the young electorate with the help of its young activists and digital expertise.
21. It’s also possible that many of the individuals, either involved directly with, or inspired by these ‘third sector’ organisations supporting them, join parties as full members or supporters, or campaign on issues and recommend their personal networks to support them. I would suggest that as a result of some of the ‘regulation’ of form activity that we will see a growth in informal campaigning networks, and individual opinion-formers/blogger growing their following.
22. So what’s the cumulative impact of this trend? It appears that the message – ‘talk to us not about us’ – coinciding with the growth in confidence in ‘youth-voice’, has not only been heard, but has produced a reaction in both 2015 and 2017 when the youth vote of 18-24-year-olds recovered from its previous decline.
23. Since the General Election 2017 there has been some disagreement about the size of the youth-turnout, depending on which poll or survey you read. Some suggest turnout was significantly higher (Youth Quake and the General Election 2017) , or the British Election Study report headline “The myth of the 2017 youth-quake election) suggesting it wasn’t. However I note the most recent contribution of the latest British Social Attitudes Survey (March 2018) suggests that the previous collapse of the 18-24 year-old vote between 1997 and 2001 from 67% to 40%, had recovered by 2015 (56%) , and to 2017 (61%). What the report points out is that whilst this youth vote increased between 2015 and 2016, so did other age categories, but its worth reading all these reports in depth before drawing any conclusions. Whatever actually happened there is at least a ‘perception’ of youth-quake, and within that, a benefit to the parties that had a youth-friendly agenda. However, the extent to which we can reliably attribute changes in voting behaviour to a more visible campaign by a party, is not something was can take for granted. My suggestion is that the background narrative of youth participation in their own democratic structures is a factor that has been under-reported to date, and worthy of further analysis, particularly as many of these young people go on to be supporters, campaigners and candidates in local and national elections, and are potentially available to all parties who ‘talk to them’.
24. Its also worth noting the potential for the emergence of organisations that are neither political parties nor charities, enabled by the internet, that become opinion-formers and supporters, communicating direct in the digital-age, and translate that into action are key points. I’m thinking of the youth voice movement that arose after the Florida school shooting which resulted in marches, days of action, and even call to lower the voting age to 16. Will we see a repeat of youth-led marches in the UK and more media-coverage of young leaders?
What’s needed: That the momentum of youth voice is recognised and invested in, in parallel and in proportion to interest in ‘Votes at 16’.
Whilst the Votes at 16 campaign has been running for many years, the youth-voice movement has been growing considerably since the last major review by the Youth Citizenship Commission in 2009. Both need to be more recognised, researched and recorded, because it is the background narrative and structure that has been and will increasingly self-organise to educate the success of youth participation in democracy, and could make the difference in whether and how vote at 16, is explored and sustained. Scotland and the role of the Scottish Youth Parliament being a good example of how the two work together.
Democracy is an ongoing dialogue, not just a vote at elections. Young people need to be invited to join it, the media to react to it, politicians respond to it, and the Government to act on it.
It’s time to update and record the growth in youth-led organisations and initiatives supporting democratic engagement, with a view to mobilising its reach to the younger electorate.
B/ What’s new and developing in the votes at 16 debate?
25. The sub-title of this paper “are we ready, willing and able?”, is not only a reference to the ‘Votes at 16 campaign’ slogan “Votes at 16 – we’re Ready” , but is also a question for all of us as a society, culture and democracy. Are we ready willing and able to lower the voting age? What has changed, is changing, needs to change? Are there new areas to explore? Should we be exploring alternative more effective ways to engage 16 and 17 year-olds that satisfies them and prepare more to vote at 18 and older? In the first section of this paper I’ve explored my experience of a growing youth-voice movement, which has both fuelled several surges in Votes at 16 campaigns, but is also becoming a potential body of evidence in its own right to demonstrate the capacity of young people and their youth-led infrastructures and partnerships with communities, local authorities and parliament, to sustain it. In the rest of this section I’ll explore some of the other new developments of recent years.
26. I do not wish to dwell on the traditional arguments in favour of change, such as citing other rights of passage at 16, such as marriage, joining the army, paying taxes, and sex; such as stimulating young people to vote, and politicians and Governments to respond by paying more attention to their issues, hopes and fears. These are well documented (House of Commons briefing: Voting 2016), though the I detect some new arguments are being explored and some areas of opposition that have not been fully articulated. Its these areas that I want to explore in this section in the hope they will help to set the agenda for the next chapter of the public policy debate.
27. The following is a list that is not-exhaustive, in no particular order of priority or time-line, and is intended to move the agenda forward, and add to it, highlighting some areas that could be deployed on both sides of the debate, not to win it, but to progress it. Some are already being discussed, such as equal votes across the UK, and others, because they have proved more challenging to explore, such as the issue of ‘intellectual capacity’.
1/ Equal rights to equal votes across the United Kingdom
28. The vote was given to 16 and 17-year-olds in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. It established the principle, and subsequent right, of 16 and 17 year-olds to vote. 75% turned out (higher than 54% of those aged 18-24. ). The Electoral Commission report explores in some detail how a programme of measures was introduced to enable the new electorate to be ready and willing to vote and is a strong case for pushing ahead with a measure which then acts in a catalyst for change. The right was extended to local and Scottish parliament elections. An opinion poll in 2014 confirmed most people, 60%, across the age ranges, are in favour of the measure being kept.
29. The Welsh Assembly has announced proposals (2018) to lower the voting age to 16 in Assembly elections which means they will join Scotland as two parts of the United Kingdom where there are different entitlements to vote and a right has been established.
30. Danielle Rowley MP, one of the first MPs to have also been a member of the UK Youth Parliament, raised this point in a debate in Westminster Hall on 28th February 2018. The Minister responsible at the Cabinet Office, Chloe Smith MP, who was also former member of a Youth Fora (rural Norwich) and sympathetic to votes at 16, chose not comment on the unfairness of inequality across the UK, referring only to the fact that it was consequence of the devolution settlement. What was noticeable was not only the amicable exchange by these two younger members of the Commons, but that it revealed the current main reason behind Government policy for not wanting to extend the voting right to the UK was that public opinion was against it. ‘The principle reason here is that very latest policy indicates only a third of the public is in favour of lowering the voting age in all UK elections… that is for that reason that it is the Governments believe to keep the voting age at 18.
1. Consideration of votes at 16 in Northern Ireland, following the establishment of a devolved assembly and Youth Parliament similar to the Scottish and Wales models.
2. Consideration of votes at 16 in devolved English regions, such as for Mayor, for example in Greater Manchester, where there is a commitment to listening to young people through the new Greater Manchester Youth Council.
2/ What do young people want? what does the public think in 2018?
31. The Youth Citizenship Commission in 2009 concluded that it ‘does not believe that the state of public opinion provides solid ground on which to base a decision’. We are still living in an age where polling is referred to frequently by the media and politicians, but how up to date it is, and given the variety of views on whether and what the youth vote turnout was in GE2017, how reliable it is? And of course it depends on the question.
32. Speaking in a Westminster Hall debate in February 2018, Minister Chloe Smith MP said that recent adverse public opinion was the principal reason behind current Government policy. She was quoting a YouGov poll, a single question, April 2017, which indicated that only a third of the public support votes at 16. The actual question being asking was in the context of the announcement of a snap General Election with two months notice and stated: “Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said today: “We should have an urgent change to the law to allow Britain’s 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds say in what will be very much their future on the 8th June. Do you tend to approve or disapprove” 62% disapproved / 36% approved. So people were being asked to approve an emergency measure with no preparation, education and very little time to register. This is very different from a measured, debated approach that includes several years of preparation for a General Election in 2022. For example, the announcement of the date of the Scottish’s referendum (March 2013) was over a year in advance of the ballot (September 2014) to give sufficient time to prepare an awareness raising programmes and school curriculum guide, for 16 and 17 year-olds, and partnerships to be set up with NGOs like the Scottish Youth Parliament. Its effectiveness was reviewed in the Electoral Commission follow up report – which is a rich source of good practice and lessons learnt .
33. In contrast, a few months after the election in October 2017, a more nuanced question by YouGov indicated a more sympathetic attitude to young people’s views. “If a 16 year-old tried to talk to you about politics would you:
a. be more likely to take their views seriously – they’re old enough to have an informed views of the world – 47% agreed
b. they are too young and inexperienced to know how the world works” – 31% agreed
c. don’t know – 20% agreed
34. In Scotland, 2014, an Electoral Commission survey showed 60% were in favour of a measure to extend voting to include 16 and 17-year-olds. (75% of these young voters also approved) In Wales, 2015, the devolved Assembly consulted widely on lowering the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. Published in 2015 , a survey of 10,000 young people aged 11-25, revealed that 53% were in favour of lowering the vote in all elections but significantly more agreed, 79%, that it was important that ‘young people have political education and learned about the voting system’. The Welsh Government announced their intention in 2018 to introduce measures to lower the vote for local council elections.
35. A lot has happened in the years since the YouGov UK wide poll of 2013 when only 20% were in favour and 60% against, but it also depends on what people are being asked to approve of. What’s needed is some up to date research or polling, with sufficient detail to not only gauge broad views, but to explore what would be needed to change minds.
What’s needed: Commissioning of opinion polls, and research, with a variety of questions about rights readiness and stages of lowering the voting age, including a valid cohort of 16 and 17 year-olds, preferably in partnership with an independent youthvoice/research organisation to help frame the questions and analyse the results.
A shift in public opinion would significantly alter the balance of the debate.
3/ A majority in the House of Commons in favour of Votes at 16? Conservatives shifting…
36. By my calculations there is now a narrow majority in favour, with some leeway should there be a free-vote, for this to more than a just a handful. (Appendix 1). Whilst pro-campaigners would be delighted I would prefer the majority to be substantial and reflect a consensus behind a series of measures introduced over time. The two private members Bills have revealed some new support, but a sense within the Conservative Party, that they could find themselves on the wrong side of the argument that could cost them votes, and that they have the potential to seize the initiative and credit, should they focus on addressing the challenges that they previously deployed to prevent change.
37. One of longstanding Conservative supporters of ‘votes at 16’ legislation, is Peter Bottomley MP, who co-sponsored the McMahon Bill, but who didn’t get the chance to speak in the Bill’s debate. He has since written in the Evening Standard predicting Votes at 16 during this Parliament. (A change of Tory leadership might be the necessary catalyst). Half a dozen others supported a free vote in 2013. One has since left the Commons and the views of the others are unclear at the moment, though some Scottish Conservative MPs have gone on the record as supporters (Appendix 1 for details).
38. They have been joined by some other significant converts in recent years. Chloe Smith MP (now a Minister responsible for democratic engagement) when a backbencher said she was in favour, and one of the co-sponsors of the Kyle Bill is Nicky Morgan MP, a former Secretary State for Education, spoke out in 2017 and re-iterated her support in February 2018, with an appeal to Conservatives to embrace and get on with Votes at 16 in Conservative Home . 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 (Sunday Times 4/2/18).
39. 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, who had declared their support in a Conservative pamphlet in 2016. I’ve included Damian Green MP who wrote the forward for this pamphlet who whilst only stating that views of his colleagues were ‘worth serious consideration’ also warned the a ‘conservative party’ should not become a reactionary block on all change for the sake of it because “When the Conservative Party gets in to this mode it appears to reject the world around it. It seldom prospers in this guise”. He further argues that: “It is important for Conservatives to demonstrate to young people, many of whom share our values, that we take their opinions seriously. Supporting a reduction in the voting age would be a dramatic way of doing that, showing that we were confident of taking our arguments to a new generation. We could introduce them not only to the good habit of voting in elections, but to the even better habit of voting Conservative.”
40. The pamphlet’s arguments, especially that of David Fazakerley (Chair of the Tory Reform Group) “The Education Imperative to Lowering the Voting Age” are worth study by all sides, and I suspect will be key text for Conservative supporters and the new Young Conservatives launched in March 2018.
41. There are many others edging towards a more neutral position. Tim Loughton MP, former Youth Minister who introduced the concept of embedding youth voice influencing into central Government with the Positive for Youth Strategy 2010-2015, recently stated his position as House of Commons workshop on youth policy “I am not against Votes at 16”.
42. In March 2018, with little fanfare the Conservative Party relaunched its young wing, replacing Conservative Future with Young Conservatives, overseen Vice Chair Ben Bradley MP, VC Conservative Party with responsibility for youth engagement. Will young Conservatives be empowered to contribute to policy development? If so what will their view on votes at 16 be?
1. An internal policy review by the Conservative party that values and includes the views of its youth wing ‘Young Conservatives” to ensure broad-based support.
2. An APPG on ‘Votes at Sixteen’ and associated measures, a Youth Citizenship Commission or similar standing body to advise parliament (not just Government)
4/ Youth-vote turnout momentum post Brexit and 2017
43. There no longer appears to be a consensus about the extent of the surge in the youth-vote in 2017, but the perception that there was will probably persist until more in depth analysis can be agreed. Consequently young people themselves are reading and recognising that they are a significant pressure group, having seen the reported higher turnout levels at the last General Election. I believe this could stimulate a momentum of self-empowerment and even greater turnout, and will herald an age of more visible lobbying and campaigning by young people, reciprocated by politicians and reported by the media.
44. Young people growing up in a ‘compare and switch to a better deal’ culture can change their minds. That is their right. Realisation of this puts a responsibility on the state and the media to properly prepare and inform the first-time voting electorate, about democracy and how to vote, and what the choices on offer are. I would not be surprised we see a new wave of young leaders emerging from their ranks who will either become significant influencers, who will comment on the youth offer by politicians, and will set up their own independent political ‘momentum’ groups.
45. Whether 16 and 17-year-olds have the vote of not, several generations of them will become over 18 by the time of the next General Election. A 14 year-old today, by the Spring of 2022, will be 18 and a voter. That’s a lot of time for all parties to listen to youthvoice and develop youth friendly policies, and the recruit more ‘supporters’ aged 14 – 17.
1. Party policy units to set up advisory boards with young leaders and representatives of 16 and 17 year-olds.
2. More visible young candidates in elections, and younger politicians promoted to visible positions of influence within political parties.
3. Young wings of political parties empowered and valued, with votes for 16 and 17 year olds. Opportunities to hear from independent young voices.
4. An analysis of the role, potential and impact of supporters, campaign and pressure groups that are not parties or charities, particularly youth-led ones.
5/ Voting assumptions – will 16 and 17 years olds vote Labour?
46. All parties are reviewing their previous assumptions about this cohort, not just turnout, but who they might vote for, and therefore, their appeal to young voters in anticipation of future elections. Very little has been written to predict how 16 and 17 year olds will vote in general elections though there has been some speculation about the impact on Brexit. The assumptions tend to be based on the voting patterns of 18 and 19 year-olds.
47. In my experience of listening to UK Youth Parliament debates (the majority of whom are aged 16 and 17) is that they could prove to be a distinctive cohort with different voting intentions from 18-24 year-olds.
48. The Government / Conservative party, and others, would do well to note a rarely quoted YouGov poll commissioned by the British Youth Council for the 2015 General Election which explored how 16 and 17-year-olds would have voted compared with 18-24 year-olds, which revealed the potential for Conservatives. Although both age groups evenly preferred Labour with 37% and 36% respectively, the 16-17 year-olds were far more likely to favour Conservatives (32%), than 18-24 year-olds, (19%) preferring them to alternatives such as Green and UKIP.
49. Polling agencies do not regularly include 16 and 17 voting intentions in their polls but have sampled this age group in the past.
1. Research and reporting of the views of 16 and 17 year-olds by parties, politicians and the media.
2. Inclusion of 16 and 17-year-olds in national voters opinion polls and party research.
6/ Independent discussion about intellectual capacity and emotional maturity
50. This is an area of the debate that can arouse strong reactions especially when it’s your intellectual capacity that is being questioned or when you are told you are not ‘mature’ enough to vote. Yet it is important to explore this more critically, with reflection and review of the arguments on both sides but with some independent input based on evidence rather than stereotypes. It’s an argument, once deployed, that raises the question of its applicability to other age groups. We do not disqualify people who have declining capacity through age or illness. There currently is no ‘intellectual capacity test’ to be a voter, and age is no absolute measure of wisdom, judgement and maturity. This highlights again the different ages at which young people (children under 18) are deemed to have the capacity to make informed decisions which are often related to the consequences for them and depending on the context. (criminal responsibility, health decisions, safety, consent, signing up to the services). Psychologists and Educationalist have much to contribute, if invited, to the votes at 16 debate, about the different development stages through adolescence and the transition to adulthood, the difference between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ cognitive decision-making, and who and how they have influenced other changes to ages in the law? What do educationalists have to say about our children’s capacity to learn and be assessed at school, and about when is the optimum time to absorb information and critically appraise it? There is a whole field of expertise absent from the debate.
51. Laurence Steinberg (professor of psychology at Temple University) supports the lowering of the voting age to 16 in the US. Writing in the New York Times in the wake of the Parkland school shootings in February 2018, he addressed the issue of intellectual capacity.
“The young people who have come forward to call for gun control in the wake of the mass shooting at their high school in Parkland, Florida, are challenging the tiresome stereotype of American kids as indolent narcissists whose brains have been addled by smartphones. They offer an inspiring example of thoughtful, eloquent protest.” He notes that they don’t however have any real power electorally and opponents of enfranchising them would argue that they are not ready to vote because their brains not fully developed enough to make good judgements.
He replies “When considering the intellectual capacity of teenagers, it is important to distinguish between what psychologists call “cold” and “hot” cognition. Cold cognitive abilities are those we use when we are in a calm situation, when we are by ourselves and have time to deliberate and when the most important skill is the ability to reason logically with facts. Voting is a good example of this sort of situation. Studies of cold cognition have shown that the skills necessary to make informed decisions are firmly in place by 16. By that age, adolescents can gather and process information, weigh pros and cons, reason logically with facts and take time before making a decision. Teenagers may sometimes make bad choices, but statistically speaking, they do not make them any more often than adults do. Hot cognitive abilities are those we rely on to make good decisions when we are emotionally aroused, in groups or in a hurry. If you are making a decision when angry or exhausted, the most critical skill is self-regulation, which enables you to control your emotions, withstand pressure from others, resist temptation and check your impulses. Unlike cold cognitive abilities, self-regulation does not mature until about age 22, research has shown. [See original article for sources]
This psychological evidence is backed up by neuro-scientific findings. Neuroimaging studies show that brain systems necessary for cold cognition are mature by mid-adolescence, whereas those that govern self-regulation are not fully developed until a person’s early 20s”
Its this type of clear proposition and counters to it that need to be part of the informed public debate on votes at 16.
7/ The National Citizen Service, citizenship and voting
50. According to the NCS website 400,000, 16 and 17 year olds had signed up to serve their local communities since it was founded in 2011. The annual report 16/17 refers to a target of 101,000 for 2017/18.
51. The programme includes provision for citizenship and democracy education, as well as community service. This Government sponsored programme, with all party support and Royal Charter status pending, has been a flagship for its youth social action strategy. I have attended several team ‘graduation’ ceremonies and was not surprised at the amazing team spirit and sense of achievement on display. They are ambassadors in the community, challenging negative stereo-types and influencing public attitudes towards 16 and 17 year-olds, through their families, schools and local communities.
52. In March 2018 the Parliamentary education service put out to tender an opportunity for organisations to teach young participants on NCS programmes in 2018-2021 about their parliament and democracy. Whilst this will doubtless enable and empowering some first-time voters at 18, it is also a testbed for education about the right to vote, and how to go about it, for 16 and 17 year-olds too.
53. There is an opportunity for Conservatives, who initiated the NCS programme and secured all-party support, to explore the link between NCS and the development of a new age of youth citizenship in preparation for taking the initiative and credit for introducing a pathway to votes at 16?
1/ All stakeholders, Government and Conservative policy-makers to explore the link between NCS and Votes at 16, and its role in preparing first time voters.
2/ A survey of graduating NCS participants after citizenship education, on their views of their right and readiness to vote at 16, and follow up study of their likelihood to vote at 18 compared with non-NCS participants.
7/ Media interest
54. On day one of the 2017 General election campaign I tuned in to BBC Radio 5 Live as usual to catch up on the media coverage and was pleasantly surprised to hear interviews with young voters, which was something of a feature of coverage, even before it became apparent this wold be a focus of the Labour campaign. This was before any potential youth-vote ‘bounce’ was apparent. In my experience the media were getting tired of the ‘old’ Votes 16 and 17 arguments and shown little interest other than in relation to Brexit, there is potential for renewed interest both at the prospect of it becoming a serious prospect and if there is new evidence and new angles (for example more senior Conservatives declaring that they are in favour. One of whom, George Osborne, is the editor of the Evening Standard. Its an opportunity for new young leaders with something new to say. There is an opportunity for campaigners to reach out to media with a refreshed agenda and I look forward to the media responding by taking more of an interest in youth-voice in general.
1./ More media coverage and representation of young leaders on mainstream media (fewer young celebrities just because they are young)
2/ Media to designate Youth Correspondents, (younger specialists who know the sector/youthvoice movement and research) to match other specialisms like Political, Defence, Health, Home affairs correspondents.
Lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 is such a significant constitutional change that it needs to command broader support, across all political parties as well as the general public.
We are about to enter a new age for democracy, not just for sixteen and seventeen year-olds, but for all young people voices to be heard.
Many 16 and 17 year-olds are ready, willing, and able to vote, but others of all ages still have doubts. Votes at 16, across the UK, is achievable, but there is more work to be done by its supporters to address outstanding questions, especially if they aim to get broad consensus, and not just a narrow ‘win’. Although it’s possible that a new Government, with a majority in favour in the House of Commons, may have an electoral mandate, it might pause its plans if research and polling shows that the public mood remains opposed.
Measures could be introduced, as in Scotland, to ensure young people are properly prepared, learning about the voting system, government, parliament and parties, who’s who and what’s what, and encouraged to research policies and weigh up the arguments during an election. But opponents will still argue that 16 and 17 -year-olds have not had as many years life experience as older voter’s. It’s not clear to what extent society and public opinion are ready and willing to support change at the moment. One immediate action point is for someone to commission a poll and to perhaps include 16 and 17year-olds voting intentions, if only as a benchmark to inform the debate.
Stakeholders will probably now start to raise their game in earnest on both sides, but, I hope, in a way that aims to work towards consensus. We may see opponents softening their rhetoric mindful of how their words will look on twitter to young voters in the future, perhaps moving from a negative campaign to positive support for alternatives that are more attractive. I can envisage a scenario where alternative youth engagement structures are strengthened to give 16 and 17 year-olds a stronger say in politics, with advisory roles in national government, even decision-making powers in local and national Government – instead of the vote.
Supporters need to change tack, and avoid repeating old arguments that don’t change minds, and instead be more specific about asking the ‘Noes’ what needs to be different to change their minds.
In the meantime all sides need to explore and introduce better education and preparation around how to register, and the process of choosing a candidate to vote for, and how to cast their vote, whilst continuing to explore a range of other ways for everyone who wants to engage with democracy, can do so, not just through ballot box, but through other local structures that empower young people to inform and influence decision-makers, locally and nationally.
Recommendations: To establish new ways to inform, influence the Votes at 16 agenda.
1. Youth voice informing and influencing
For ten 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 . 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. As well as the success in Scotland and Wales, local young campaigners. (usually through youth councils) have also persuaded 29 local councils to pass motions in support of votes at 16. These are examples of youth-led campaigns having an impact, are still to be recognised and valued in the debate. Given that this #youthvoice lobby represent the very ‘constituency’ affected, their input and role within a new Commission or APPG on Votes at 16, is critical.
2. A Youth Citizenship (standing) Commission and an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on ‘Votes at 16’.
I believe that a new all-party backed Youth Citizenships Commission*, or/and an All Party Parliamentary Group** on Votes at 16, will provide ongoing safe and shared spaces to bring together stakeholders together, young and old, politicians and academics. It will also replace the win/lose campaigning and adversarial exchanges that have proved unsuccessful for decades and empower those most affected, youth people/voters, to return to the centre of the debate with an equal voice.
These bodies need to adopt a broad agenda, not does not simply include the associated measures to implement Votes at 16, addressing the planning process for education and auto-voter registration, drawing on good practice and lessons learnt in Scotland, but needs to address the other issues raised – such as whether to review and reform other rights and ages, and how to address the issues of intellectual capacity and life experience. This means that the composition of their inquiries must have a degree of independence and impartiality, if they are not seen to be platforms to promote just one side and dismiss the other.
*The last Youth Citizenship Commission in 2008, research and outputs, produced a 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 saying young people were split or opposed to the idea, but the data covered age bands between 11 and 25 (46% for and 43% against) and the group of 16 and 17 year-olds was included as part of a 16-18 cohort (53% for 40% against) New data should break age bands down into single years so that 16-17 year-olds can be tracked and benchmarked, and compared with similar two year groups (18-19, 20-21 or 18-24).
**An All Party Parliamentary Group 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. A good example of a similar (and youth-led) mechanism was the Youth Select Committee on Votes at 16 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 Government. It’s a report well worth re-visiting, and the model of inquiry, which ensured Votes at 16 campaigners were giving evidence not taking it, replicated.
NOTE: The suggested breakdown is a prediction intended as a starting/reference point for research. Actual votes on a motion depend very much on what the question is.
For any corrections changes/updates please contact the Author.
1. Conservative MPs who have indicated they are in favour – by co-sponsoring a Bill, pamphlet, speech or interview: Peter Bottomley, Sarah Wollaston, Damian Green, Nicky Morgan, Luke Graham, John Lamont, Paul Masterson and Bill Grant, or listed on Votesat16 campaign website Glyn Davies. (Chloe Smith has stated in the past she is in favour – but has since voted against it for the Brexit referendum, and as a Govt Minister in the department responsible for it Ive not included her in the table. She favours review of all ages/rights (as does Anna Soubry MP).
2. Labour MP Barry Sheerman has consistently opposed the measure in previous votes and speeches
3. Sinn Fein MPs do not take up their seats/vote in Westminster
4. Four in favour, Lady Hermon (ind) and three suspended Labour MPs / and one against, suspended Conservative.
a. ‘Lets look again’ MPs include Justine Greening – 1 possible vote https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/greening-warns-tories-can-no-longer-ignore-the-young-lsttgv2v6 She also told her party to be “open-minded” about granting votes to 16-year-olds “I don’t think it’s an argument that should be dismissed at all,” she said. “I got to vote one or two days after I was 18 in 1987. Was I too immature to have voted three days before when I was 17? Probably not.”
b. There are 13 Scottish Conservatives. Four (Grant, Lamont, Mastersonand Graham) have spoken in favour and listed already, but if all the Scottish Tories were to all follow their leader, (Ruth Davidson), that would be an addition 9 possible votes.
c. On 24/1/2013 on a free vote on a Backbench motion on Votes at 16, seven Conservatives voted in favour. One is already counted (Peter Bottomley) and one no longer sits in the Commons. Whilst the remainder have since voted against they were: Zac Goldsmith, John Penrose, Henry Smith, Justin Tomlinson, Martin Vickers. 5 votes. https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2013-01-24/division/13012438001171/VotingAge?outputType=Party
d. Votesat16 coalition website states two DUP MPs support. This website also lists Lords, MEPs and Councils in support. http://www.votesat16.org/about/supportive-politicians/ 2 possible votes
Comment: George Osborne and Peter Bottomley are among Conservatives who have suggested that there are enough MPs now in favour of, or sympathetic to, a lowering of the voting age to 16, to create a majority in the House of Commons. However, such a major constitutional issue may require greater parliamentary and public support of a narrow parliamentary majority, if such a reform is to be embraced by the public and support sustained. (Note Brexit)
The next Private Members Bill debate on the subject, with cross-party sponsorship coordinated by Peter Kyle MP, is due in May 2018. Whether this goes to a vote or not (McMahon, 11/17, was filibustered), it could provide a focal point for Conservatives to get behind a new strategy or alternative proposal – such as a Government appointed independent Youth Commission, or will stimulate a more productive dialogue between parties to explore the issues and broaden public support. [I wonder what private polling is telling parties about public mood on this? It depends on the question and two differently worded versions get support or opposition].
There will also be some MPs who fall into the ‘lets look again’ camp who would either vote in favour, or support an interim measure, depending on whether there was a free vote. Opponents, rather than face defeat, might rally behind a call for a review of all age/rights (something previously suggested by Chloe Smith MP, and now called for by Anna Soubry MP). Tim Loughton MP, former Children and Youth Minister, and somewhat of a Conservative authority and champion of youth participation, recently said he was not against Votes at 16.
ENDS For updates check James Cathcart @JamesCatChats
Youth Citizenship Commission
YCC Final Report (Main): ‘Making the connection, Building youth citizenship in the UK’, June 2009
YCC Voting Age Final Report: ‘Old enough to make a mark? Should the voting age be lowered to 16?’, June 2009
An Agenda for Youth Engagement: Government response to the recommendations of the Youth Citizenship Commission
All Together Now – the case for an APPG on Votes at 16, Cathcart, 2018 https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/votes-16-all-together-now-james-cathcart/
Make Your Mark Report, BYC 2017, Infographic 2010-2017
Young Voices Heard –in communities, boardroom and parliaments, 2017, https://jamescathcart.club/
Votes at 16 Coalition http://www.votesat16.org/
BBC Radio One i-guide http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zsbtbk7
J. Tonge and A. Mycock , new research announced 2018, http://theconversation.com/votes-for-16-year-olds-should-be-based-on-wider-evidence-not-just-a-need-for-participation-90898
Professor Steinberg writing in the NYTimes 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/02/opinion/sunday/voting-age-school-shootings.html
‘Briefing Paper ‘Voting Age’ Parliament Library 2016 http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN01747/SN01747.pdf
J. Tonge and A. Mycock , new research announced 2018, http://theconversation.com/votes-for-16-year-olds-shoulerbd-be-based-on-wider-evidence-not-just-a-need-for-participation-90898
Community Service Volunteers, National Children’s Bureau, Prince’s Trust and British Youth Council
Cathcart, NCB/Kingsley, 1997 https://www.jkp.com/uk/preparation-for-adulthood.html
Cathcart , Prince’s Trust, 2004 http://www.worldcat.org/title/looking-beyond-the-label-public-attitudes-towards-young-people-in-care/oclc/795966471
RHP Companion to Leaving Care, Wheal 2002 http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2003/02/27/the-rhp-companion-to-leaving-care/
www.Jamescathcart.club Blogs / LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/james-cathcart-5a21248/
Liam Preston Chair BYC 2010 http://www.old.byc.org.uk/media/17880/BYC_Manifesto_2010_2012.pdf
Mita Desai, Chair BYC, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/mita-desai/young-voters-general-election-2015_b_6792820.html
Anna Barker Chair BYC 2017 http://www.byc.org.uk/campaigns/our-parliament-our-vision
and reports http://www.byc.org.uk/uk/youth-select-committee/reports
Votes at 16 report, BYC 2014, http://www.byc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Youth-Select-Committee-Lowering-the-Voting-Age-to-16-Report.pdf
Does Politics Matter to Young People? http://www.kennyreport3.com/pdf/KennyReport-2.pdf
Votes at 16 Coalition http://www.votesat16.org/
Votes at 16 Coalition http://www.votesat16.org/
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
‘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/