One of the focuses for media attention in this election has been on the youth vote. Discussion has centred on the impact of the live TV debates and the role of social media in encouraging a higher voter registration and interest amongst 18 – 24 year olds.
This has been coupled with a healthy dose of cynicism from the media and the public as to whether young people are really interested in voting, are mature enough to vote, or should even be given the vote at all.
According to a poll published on 26th April by British Youth Council member the National Union of Students (NUS) and insurer Endsleigh, 75% of university students (almost 2 million) plan to cast their vote next Thursday. Over 45 key seats have a student population of between 10% and 30%.
NUS National president-elect Aaron Porter said: “With more than 45 vital constituencies around the country containing large student populations, the candidates who can effectively engage with this group are sure to reap the rewards on election day.”
We at the British Youth Council (BYC) would argue that young people have always had an interest in what happens at a local and national level. Through the 600 plus youth councils around the country, over 600,000 young people have voted for youth representatives to champion the issues that are important to them. Thousands more are involved in making decisions and voting at school councils. And of course there are those who are involved in the youth branches of the political parties.
BYC (run by young people, for young people to empower them to engage in democracy, to have a say and be heard), has been campaigning for the voting age to be lowered to 16 for over a decade and chairs the Votes at 16 Coalition.
The Electoral Commission’s public consultation into the voting age found that 72% favoured a voting age of 16.
Currently 16 and 17 year olds pay income tax, can get married, have a child and join the armed forces, yet they can’t elect MPs and local councillors whose decisions affect their lives.
Young people have to wait at least two years (and in some cases up to seven) before putting their knowledge of politics and democracy gained from compulsory citizenship classes into practice at the ballot box.
With the voting age at 18, because of the four or five year election cycle, thousands of young people don’t have the opportunity to vote until they are 22 or 23.
We believe that introducing votes at 16 will encourage more young people to take part in the local and national elections. Lowering the voting age would be the foundation that the UK Parliament could build on to change the way that 1.5 million 16 and 17 year olds see politics.
One of the British Youth Council’s volunteers 16 year old Jack Green told me: “At 16, I feel I am mature enough to have my contribution towards the running of the country. I should have the chance to vote in general and local elections and choose who represents me.
“Young people are taught in school and college what democracy is and how government works, yet we have to wait to vote. I have political opinions and express these by supporting petitions, joining groups and social networking sites and discussing things online, but I can’t vote. Votes at 16 would mean youth issues are represented more and that more is done for young people”.
Last year BYC invited young people aged 25 and under around the country to tell us about which issues were most important to them, so that a youth led manifesto could be developed. The result is the British Youth Council’s General Election Manifesto – Our Parliament, Our Vision. Over 600 young people submitted proposals, these were debated and discussed at a local level and then voted on locally and regionally. They were then being narrowed down to 15 proposals which were debated at the BYC Annual Council Meeting.
Five proposals were agreed which now form the basis of the manifesto. These include lowering the voting age to 16, equal pay for equal work under the minimum wage, ending child poverty by 2020, better mental health care for 16-25 year olds and more affordable public transport for 16-25 year olds.
We believe, it’s not that young people aren’t interested in having their say, but that politicians haven’t been talking to us about what we feel is important – the issues that affect our everyday lives. Issues such as whether we can afford to get on a bus or train to go to college or work, why, when 1 in 5 young people are self harming there aren’t better mental health services for 16-25 year olds and with a third of children in the UK still living in poverty, we want to make sure the government keeps to its promise to end child poverty by 2020.
And as importantly we want to ensure there’s equal pay for equal work, with young workers from 16 – 21 being paid an equal hourly rate for the minimum wage. (Currently adult workers on a minimum wage get paid £312.20 more a month than a 16 or 17 year old doing the same job).
These are the issues, along with introducing votes at 16, that we want to see the next parliament taking action on, to improve the lives of young people.
If the figures play out, with students and younger voters casting their votes in higher numbers this Thursday, this will mean for the first time, that the views of younger voters will have a real impact on which government is elected.