Ed Miliband's pledge to support the Vote at 16 may help address young marginalization, but will need to be part of broader reforms for bringing young people into our political system. The causes of young marginalization run deep. Since the economic crisis, we have left our younger generation facing the worst prospects of any since the Second World War, including the poorest social mobility in the OECD. Meanwhile we have cut young people's connection from UK society, slashing their provision and ignoring their policy needs while fortifying support for older generations. The Vote at 16 is a welcome opportunity to reverse the trend of inertia and indifference towards the crisis of youth, and evidence from elsewhere suggests it might work: but only if Westminster can repay young voters in kind with effective representation and meaningful roles in the policy process.
Votes at 16: from pipe dream to promise
Ed Miliband's promise to extend the Vote to 16 confirms the pledge his party made in 2012, that his shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan repeated in August, 2013, and which Miliband has restated since. Labour previously had the 2016 London Mayoral election as their first target for the Vote at 16 in England, and Miliband has now extended the pledge to cover the 2016 English local elections as well, should Labour form the Government after the next general election.
In ten years the Vote at 16 has matured from a theoretical proposal to a headline policy for democratic reform. In 2005, Westminster became one of the first European Parliaments to vote on extending suffrage to 16. The bill was defeated by eight votes. Since then, 16 and 17-year-olds have been given the vote in several European jurisdictions: for example, the Isle of Man (2006), Jersey and Guernsey (2007), in Austria (2007) and some regions of Norway and Germany. Most recently, 16 and 17-year-olds voted in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. Labour are joined as prominent supporters of the Vote at 16 by the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, the SNP, the National Assemblies of Northern Ireland and Wales, and the European Parliament.
Where has the vigour behind the campaign for the Vote at 16 come from? In March I wrote that the UK is waking up to the crisis of young people's marginalization, a crisis that has been brewing since the 1980s, especially in public debate about young abstention from elections. Extending the vote is proposed as a way to welcome young people back the electoral system in particular, and institutional politics in general. The argument is strengthened by a growing number of national and regional case studies and especially from evidence in Austria, where the Vote at 16 has brought young people to the ballot box as mature and informed voters who are, in addition, contiguous in the issues they care about and they ways they vote to the rest of the population.
Why vote at all?
Political parties are right to worry that young people are marginalised. Representation, however, is a two-way street. If we want to rebuild the connection between young people and political institutions, institutions and the policy makers within them must wake up to their burden of responsibility to represent young citizens, who live amid a dual crisis of economic hardship on the one hand, and marginalisation from politics on the other.
Voting is a tool, and the evidence is young people no longer consider it the only tool for political engagement. They prefer a broader toolbox of ways to participate in and change society around them. A vote means very little without the accompanying political will to give young people meaningful oversight over how we address those problems. This must be accompanied by policy that welcomes young people as meaningful democratic subjects.
Young people can be voters, but also abstainers, dissenters, protesters, party members and charity workers, and we must welcome their varied politics to our democratic system.
Miliband's pledge for the Vote at 16 may represent a useful reform, but only if it is part of wider systemic reform to make democratic institutions more representative of and accountable to young citizens. Young people face deeper problems from lasting gender inequality to long term unemployment and poverty. For too long we have left Britain's young citizens out of the democratic process for solving these problems.
We need to put young citizens at the heart of the policy process. The Vote at 16 might be an important part of the reform we need.