07/05/2014 18:18 BST | Updated 07/07/2014 06:59 BST

Votes at 16 Can Engage Our Young

Votes at 16 is a radical proposal that has the potential to energise a new generation of politically active and engaged citizens. However, votes at 16 needs to go hand in hand with wider youth engagement and a renewed commitment to citizenship education.

We are facing a deficit in politics that goes far beyond the issue of young people voting. It would be easy to retreat from the problem; especially in the midst of all the other pressing issues we face but it is essential that we seek new ways in which to engage the electorate.

General election turnout in the UK has been on a downward trend since the 1950s, when 84% of the population turned out to vote. At the last election, the proportion was just 65%. As we have heard, membership of political parties has fallen off a cliff, spectacularly so in the case of the Conservative party, which is now at one thirtieth of its peak membership, but it would be naive to say that this does not affect all parties.

Youth is not automatically linked to apathy, and the reasons behind low turnout are complicated. My experience from meeting young people in my constituency of Hammersmith, are often highly political, but wary of formal party politics. Many do not feel that politicians listen to their concerns or discuss their aspirations.

It is probably true that a majority of all people do not trust politicians, but that feeling is particularly significant among the young, who are perhaps not so world-weary, slightly more idealistic, and therefore more disappointed in the way in which politicians sometimes behave. The swathe of first-time voters in 2010 who cast their ballots for Nick Clegg, only to see him betray them on tuition fees comes to mind.

But rather than turning our backs, elected politicians must seek to improve the current democratic malaise. I believe you do that by empowering young people.

Only 44% of those aged 18 to 24 voted in the general election. A recent survey found that only a third of 16 to 24-year-olds say they have an interest in politics. Compare those figures with the 76% of those of pension age who voted. The gap has almost doubled since 1970, when there was an 18 percentage point gap between young people and those of pension age, to around 30 percentage points.

Votes at 16 is a radical proposal that has the potential to energise a new generation of politically active and engaged citizens. However, votes at 16 needs to go hand in hand with wider youth engagement and a renewed commitment to citizenship education. The education participation age is rising to 18. By offering the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds at school, at college and in workplaces, we can intertwine civic duty with our education system. Conferring a democratic responsibility and opportunity on people still in compulsory education offers practical benefits. For example, on polling days, schools and colleges could have polling stations for students, making it more likely that this group would take advantage of the opportunity. That would be intertwined with Labour's policy to empower schools to work with electoral registration officers to ensure that students are registered to vote.

It is important to note that only about half of young people aged 18 to 24 are registered to vote. If people vote once, they are more likely to vote again. The Social Market Foundation published research that found that the closer to an election an individual's 18th birthday is, the more likely they are to vote. That demonstrated that people who turn 18 in the year leading up to a general election are significantly more likely to vote than those who turn 18 in the year after the previous general election and have to wait five years. Those who vote when young continue to vote. Over time, voting could become a rite of passage in our education system, like taking exams, but this will require a strengthening of citizenship education.

The Labour government made great strides with their introduction of citizenship as a subject in secondary school. Citizenship education should sit at the core of our curriculum, giving young people an understanding and deeper knowledge of, and interest in, civic issues. Votes at 16 would place renewed emphasis on this area for our schools.

So much damage has been done to young people under the current government. They have abolished the education maintenance allowance and university fees are soaring - again we must give a hat-tip to the Liberal Democrats for that. The government scrapped the future jobs fund, too. It is hardly a surprise that the coalition parties are nervous about the idea, but over time that will not be an issue.

At 16, people can go out to work, become a director of a company, join a trade union and participate fully in society.

That is why, as our shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan has already said, the next Labour government will give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote. However, that is not enough; it is crucial that they be given a reason to vote, and the support to engage in the democratic process. Voting is a gateway to participation in society, not an end in itself. If we do not give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote, we are excluding them from some of the rights and responsibilities that we otherwise increasingly load on them. Giving them the vote is the fair and right thing to do - and the next Labour government will deliver just that.