Votes at 16: 2020, What next for this long-running campaign?
‘Votes at 16’ no longer commands the support of a majority of MPs in the new Parliament. Yes – Wales has joined Scotland in lowering the local voting age locally, but are General Election campaigners facing five years ‘parked’ in Parliament? Are young people in this age group now prioritising action on climate change, mental health and knife-crime over the right to vote? After all, Greta Thunberg has shown that even if you are too young to vote you are not too young to be heard by those that do. Stakeholders, supporters and funders are focusing on investment in social action campaigning and renewed youth services all year round, rather than empowerment through voting tomorrow. Invited by the Leverhulme Trust Voting Age research project, I headed up to the People’s History Museum in Manchester to find out what young delegates and their youth workers would make of the ‘first ever’ Votes at 16 conference and the project’s ‘findings so far’.
Its unlikely any backbenchers will opt to make ‘Votes at 16’ the subject of a Private Members Bill this parliament. Many of the old arguments in favour, too often repeated by campaigners and MPs, are still not cutting through. In the 2018 the ‘Make Your Mark’ ballot (UK Youth Parliament) ‘Votes at 16’ only ranked 7th out of 10 campaign priorities voted on by over 1 million young voters aged 11-18, and in 2019 whilst ranked 3rd, this was only out of a choice of 5, and didn’t make the cut to be debated in the UKYP House of Commons. (It had featured in 5 out of 6 previous years debates). Issues such as Climate Change, Hate Crime, Mental Health, Knife Crime, Equal pay, Period Poverty, Homelessness, and Curriculum for Life ranked higher in recent years.
So, it was with some trepidation that I arrived at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, for the ‘first ever’ Votes at 16 Conference (25/1/20). It was organised by the Voting Age Project as part of a series of consultations, reflections and evidence gathering by the Universities of Liverpool and Huddersfield, who are running a two-year research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The project reunites Professor Jon Tonge (Liverpool) and Dr Andy Mycock (Huddersfield) formerly of the Youth Citizenship Commission (2008-2009) whose final report on whether ‘16 was old enough to make a mark’ was inconclusive, stating that there was not enough evidence to make a recommendation either way. For the last three years ‘Young Voices Heard’ has been calling on the Government to re-establish the commission to update and commission fresh evidence to inform a more definitive conclusion on the issue and influence the quality of the national debate. The Voting Age Project and its findings will be the nearest we get to a Commission this Parliament, making it a significant milestone for the youth voice movement and for a campaign that is at least 20 years old!
118 people, many more than expected, packed into the room, including 72 aged between 14 and 25, and 46 stakeholders and youth-workers, from across the UK. A mentimeter-poll (using mobile phones) revealed that 99% present were in favour of votes of 16 so this was not going to be a debate about whether we have Votes at 16, but an opportunity to explore in more detail, the ‘why’ and ‘how’.
Billed as a “conference” it was more akin to a skilfully planned participation workshop which included space and time for young people to debate the issues amongst themselves, whilst older ‘stakeholders’ were separated into another room to explore how young people could be better supported and prepared to engage in democracy. They re-joined younger delegates in the afternoon to help facilitate the final sessions on ‘how do we prepare for voting’ and what ‘campaigning for change’ could look like.
The project presentations underlined some of significant developments in the last decade such as the fact that: 16 and 17 year-olds are now able to vote in Wales and Scotland, increasing voting inequality in the UK; that public opinion is now swinging in favour of lowering the voting age (42% / 38%); and amongst 16 and 17 year-olds its 72% for and only 12% against. Discussions and a “word-map” also indicated a shift in emphasis, away from a debate about the ‘right to vote associated with adulthood’ towards a ‘right to vote associated with representation, equality and youth citizenship’. Delegates were also clear that reforms needed adequate preparation and must be equally implemented across all four nations in the UK.
My overall impression of the day was that it was one of the most engaging, diverse, lively and informative participation events Ive attended in recent years. Young people nominated from a wide range of organisations, as well as individual campaigners, who would not otherwise meet each other, were able to come together to this ‘open’ event, and were clearly enthused by the style of engagement. Those that I interviewed at the end agreed that they felt ‘heard’ and ‘inspired’. One of the stakeholders workshop proposals was to ‘create some sort of national forum to take forward this work’ . These supporters still have their eyes on the prize. Not parked at all.
The Leverhulme Trust project will launch its final report and recommendations in Westminster later in the year (following more events in Belfast, Edinburgh, Cardiff and London). I hope that its findings are taken up by elected members, debated in Parliament and reported by the media, informing and influencing public opinion. In particular that the report prompts a meaningful response from Government and Opposition parties.
Votes at 16 appears to still be the headline of the campaign, but it is now introducing a much broader agenda for democratic reform and inclusion. If democracy is to continue to be a dialogue between the elected and the people then, on the evidence of this event, it will richer when the next generation is included in it.
Youth voice is still capable of driving change – not waiting for it, so lets get into gear, refuel with fresh evidence and accelerate to the next level.
James Cathcart, Director of Young Voices Heard,
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