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10 for 10: The Youth Emancipation Bill

It is deeply wrong that parliament is on holiday for 10 weeks at a time of national crisis and peril, as I argue here. So what should the government be bringing to parliament instead of a 10-week holiday? I will be publishing detailed proposals for 10 pieces of legislation that would answer the needs of the millions who are left out and left behind in today’s Britain. Number five in this series is a bill to give disenfranchised young people the vote.

There is no more important time to give young people a say in political decisions than now as their futures hang in the balance with Brexit. Young people should be able to vote at 16, so that political debate and democracy fully include them, and so that they start to consider and discuss while still at school how to use their vote. Sixteen is the age of responsibility in most other spheres, and it’s hard to make an argument of principle against giving the vote to 16-year-olds when it already happens in Austria, Brazil and the Isle of Man. A youth emancipation bill would pass easily in the Commons, where there is now a clear majority for votes at 16, and would mean that our young people were never again excluded from decisions about their futures.

The future of the United Kingdom has already been decided on by 16-18 year olds in the 2014 Scottish Referendum. Strikingly, turnout among 16-18 year olds was 75%, 21 percentage points higher than 18-24 year olds and even higher than among 25-34 year olds, while levels of political interest among under 18s were as high as the general population – young people clearly want to participate in decisions that will shape their lives, and parliament should let them. Voting is a strongly habitual and persistent activity so this indicates that lowering the voting age would significantly boost political participation and strengthen democratic citizenship; indeed, research by Eichhorn finds that 16-year olds who voted in the 2014 independence referendum were significantly more likely to vote in the next General Election. Young people should be able to vote at 16, so that political debate and democracy fully include them, and so that they start to consider and discuss while still at school how to use their vote.

A Youth Emancipation Bill would also do more to include young people in democracy than just lower the voting age. There should be a polling station in every secondary school in local and national elections, turning on its head the perversity of some schools being closed on polling day so that the ‘adults’ can get on with democracy. Just as schools’ mock exams lead to real public exams for older students, so mock elections should lead to real elections for older students. This would give the teaching of citizenship a practical objective, and politicians and candidates would treat teenagers as serious constituents if they knew their electoral prospects depended upon it.

Likewise, it should be possible to become a local councillor at 16, and parties should actively promote younger candidates, including sixth-formers, to stand for council elections, just as they have in recent years promoted women and ethnic minority candidates.

The UK should also follow the example set by Scotland in implementing measures to boost youth turnout: Electoral Registration Officers should visit schools to register eligible young people, local councils should carry out public awareness activities, and the Department of Education should help schools increase political literacy. It is critical that politics is brought into the classroom: The University of Edinburgh found that found young people who had discussed the referendum in school exhibited significantly more political confidence and understanding than those who had not.

Finally, if members of parliament are going to take a three month holiday over summer they should let the UK Youth Parliament sit during this time instead.

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