Former House of Commons Education Select Committee specialist Ben Nicholls is head of policy at London’s Newham College. He writes exclusively for FE Week, every month.
He leans forward and looks me in the eyes. “But is it something the government is actually serious about? Or is it just something they talk about to try and sound popular with young people?”
The scene is a student council meeting at our Stratford campus; the overwhelming smell is of pizza; the question is a good one. For a long time, the corridors of power have hummed with giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote. But when I seek out students’ views, I soon realise that many of them think that it’s all about political posturing and
Things did move on a little when MPs supported Stephen Williams, Lib Dem MP for Bristol and a long-time champion of the cause, when he brought his Voting Age (Reduction to 16) Bill before the Commons in January. However, his Bill collapsed because it didn’t finish its passage by the end of the Parliamentary session. Meanwhile, in Scotland, 16 and 17-year-olds have been guaranteed a say in the independence referendum, scheduled for September next year.
The Stratford students’ ages offer little predictor of their views: several, mature and young, say that 16 is nowhere near mature enough to understand or participate in elections, while others, again from both camps, disagree. Concerns arise about undue influence from parents or friends; for others it is an issue of basic civil liberties: “I probably wouldn’t actually vote,” says one 16-year-old, “but I should be given the chance.”
But the strongest argument comes when we discuss what else 16 and 17-year-olds can do. The list is long and ranges from working and paying tax, to having sex and getting married, to riding a moped and possessing (though not purchasing) cigarettes. While there’s an acknowledgement that some 16-year-olds may not be mature enough to vote, there’s a consensus that it’s pretty bizarre to set it higher than the age at which you can, say, join the armed forces.
Would the Tories have been so quick to force through the abolition of the education maintenance allowance if they’d have needed the votes of those who received it?”
For my part, I think patronising young people is a pretty good way to irritate them and switch them off — and asking them to work and pay tax but not give them a stake in the governance of their country seems pretty patronising to me.
For the past ten years, it’s been a huge privilege to be the founding chair of RicNic, a youth theatre group that allows young people to put on shows in professional theatres with a minimum of adult supervision (and without paying to participate). The basic ethos is that, if young people are trusted to marry and motorbike and march, they should probably be trusted to choreograph West Side Story too.
For this reason, and for the many excellent reasons put forth by the student councillors, the whole thing’s a no-brainer for me. What better way, if we really want to engage young people in politics (and, perhaps more importantly, in policy), than ask them what they think in a meaningful and tangible way at the ballot box?
Furthermore, giving young people a say in the issues that affect them might also result in some better policy-making. Would the Tories have been so quick to force through the abolition of the education maintenance allowance if they’d have needed the votes of those who received it? Would the Lib Dems have reneged on their promise to scrap tuition fees, and would Labour have been so eager to saddle the next generation with mountains of debt?
Perhaps, knowing as we do in the world of FE how impressive young people can be, this is a policy issue that lots of us — and our students — could really get behind. If, as Vernon Bogdanor has suggested, lowering the voting age could “reignite the interest of the young in politics”, it would surely be worth doing.
If we’re willing for our young people to be given benefits and bayonets, it seems fair to give them a cross in a box as well.