Votes at 16: parked or paused?

‘Votes at 16’ no longer commands the support of a majority of MPs in Parliament.

Yes - Wales has joined Scotland in lowering the local voting age locally, but General Election campaigners are facing five years 'parked' in Parliament. Young people in this age group are prioritising action now on climate change, mental health and knife-crime over the right to vote tomorrow. After all, Greta Thunberg has shown that even if you are ‘too young’ to vote you are ‘not too young’ to be heard. 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'.

It was with some trepidation that I arrived early to an empty venue to volunteer my support at ‘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. Young Voices Heard has been calling on the government to re-establish the commission for an update of evidence to inform a more definitive conclusion and influence the quality of the national debate.

I was on the registration desk where 118 people, many more than expected, signed in to pack the room. They included 72 young people (aged between 14 and 25 from across the UK) and 46 stakeholders and youth workers. Billed as a “conference” it was more akin to a skilfully planned participation event 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 to engage in democracy, exploring issues such a better citizenship education/political literacy. They re-joined the main group in the afternoon to help facilitate the final sessions.

The project presentations underlined some 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 according to the project's research, public opinion is now swinging in favour of lowering the voting age, 42 per cent 'for', 38 per cent 'against' and amongst 16- and 17-year-olds it's 72 per cent for and only 12 per cent against. Discussions and a "word-map" also indicated a shift in emphasis - away from a debate or campaign for a ‘right to vote associated with adulthood’ towards a ‘right to vote associated with representation, equality and youth citizenship’.

Delegates were also clear that reforms should be applied with adequate preparation and equally across all of the UK.

This was one of the most engaging, diverse, lively and informative participation events 'Ive attended in recent years. Young people were clearly enthused and those that I interviewed at the end agreed that they felt ‘heard’ and ‘inspired’. I also noticed that one of the workshop proposals was to ‘create some sort of national forum to take forward this work’. Perhaps of stakeholders not campaigners.
The project will launch its final report 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, and, in particular, that the report prompts a meaningful response from government and opposition parties.

Votes at 16 appears to still be the headline act, 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, driving change not waiting for it.

James Cathcart is director of Young Voices Heard, Participation and Advocacy Services @YVH_YouthVoice