I Was a Tory - Until I Educated Myself

08/06/2015 10:02 BST | Updated 06/06/2016 10:59 BST

I have a confession: I once was a Tory supporter. Or at least, I thought I was. This is going back a decade, when I was in my early teens and just beginning to pay attention to the world outside my own life.

Someone had explained their opposition to a 50p tax rate as: "you wouldn't expect people to pay different prices for the same loaf of bread, why should you expect a different price for the NHS?" In my naivety, this had made sense. I understood little of how the world actually functioned around me, and even less about entrenched inequality.

This thought keeps coming back to me as we get nearer to passing a Bill that will give all 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in Holyrood and local government elections. It is likely to get through with unanimous backing before summer recess begins, a direct result of the mass youth engagement during the independence referendum. However, it seems unlikely that the rest of the UK will follow suit as there is no intention to reduce the voting age ahead of the general election in 2020, or even the 2017 EU referendum.

The arguments against giving young people the vote largely focus around the fear that it won't be taken seriously. Make the suggestion, and jokes abound about how the same people put One Direction and Flo Rida into the charts - how can we possibly trust them to vote for an elected representative? You might laugh, but in all seriousness many people question whether under 18s are 'sensible' or 'mature' enough to vote.

And this brings me back to young me. My support for the Conservatives largely stemmed from the fact that I was not mature enough to recognise what right-wing politics actually was. I was sheltered and middle-class, having no experience of what it was like to struggle by or fearing where the next meal would come from. Nor did I have any idea that other people did. Having no life experience meant I was not mature enough to make an informed decision about politics. For this reason, I can partly understand the opposition to extending the voting franchise.

But let me be absolutely clear: I entirely support votes at 16. As long as it is accompanied by some form of political education. In the few years between Conservative me and 16-year-old me, I had taken it upon myself to learn a bit. Some of this came from parents (my friends' as well as my mum), some from news sources, some from books. Very little came from the formal education system. This is where I think we fall short with youth engagement.

In Scottish schools, a subject called Modern Studies includes some discussion about politics. Where I was schooled in England, no such thing existed. Whilst Modern Studies isn't compulsory, and indeed is only available in about 80% of secondary schools, it's a start. By introducing people to politics at a younger age, we can ensure they understand enough about the world around them so, by the time they turn 16, they can vote knowing who they are voting for.

The difficulty is, of course, teaching politics in a non-partisan fashion. Teachers, like parents, are in a position of power and however good their intentions might be, there is a chance that they might end up teaching children about their politics, rather than how to think about politics. Young people could end up leaving classrooms with an entirely different set of ideas, ones which aren't there own, because they don't have the other side of the coin.

However, this doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. For that reason the Electoral Commission and Education Scotland are working together to create guidelines for teachers in Scotland to teach politics. This could easily be applied to the rest of the UK. And thinking long-term, by engaging people in their youth, they are far more likely to stay interested as they grow older. Indeed, plenty of adults who do vote are perhaps as equally unengaged as their children.

It is not enough to empower young people to vote. We must also empower them to make an informed decision.