There was an awful lot of conversation about young people and political engagement in the run up to this year's general election. Stereotypes have been perpetuated and anybody below the age of 20 is now, in the eyes of the public, totally unresponsive to politics; other than on the occasion where they might sit goggle-eyed in front of a programme first broadcast in October 2013 and nod along to Russell Brand's "don't vote' rhetoric. Of course, most young Brand supporters are well aware that his opinions have evolved and he now endorses voting, whilst tabloid press are conveniently oblivious to this. David Cameron has announced that 16 and 17 year olds will not be permitted to vote in the European Referendum that is proposed for next year, despite five out of seven of the main UK political parties championing votes at 16. I argue that politically active teenagers are not "another myth put about by pro-Europeans", as Tory MP John Redwood recently claimed. How do I know this? Because I am one.
I was first published in the Independent Magazine prior to the general election. It was a tiny column outlining the four things that my generation need from this government - you can read it here, at the bottom of Caroline Lucas' article: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/caroline-lucas-reveals-10-things-no-one-tells-you-before-you-first-enter-parliament-10149138.html. What I have learnt since then is that for every statement you make about how things must change, here is always a bunch of angry 40-something keyboard warriors who wish to attack the very notion of 'progress'. For a short while, votes at 16 became the first left wing vs. right wing battleground of this parliamentary term until it was defeated in the Commons. All is not lost though, as the motion is currently going under scrutiny in the House of Lords and there is still a throng of passionate individuals who stick by the cause. Those who disagree with the campaign are happy to belittle young activists' political awareness and even label them as 'childish'. Their view of young people is outdated. Let me explain why:
1. "16 and 17 year olds don't have enough life experience"
If we are going to measure eligibility to vote by experience, why not restrict it only to those who have travelled outside this country and have a global outlook? How about to the people who have dabbled in the greatest number of professions or have lived in a variety of places? Although 16 and 17 year olds might be lacking in years, we are certainly not lacking in understanding. In the age of 24 hour news and with a whole world of information at our fingertips, 16 year olds of the 2000s are better informed than most 18 year olds were in 1969, the last time the voting age was lowered. We are aware of events that occur on the other side of the world instantaneously and are able to access a whole spectrum of opinion within seconds. Within a school day we can go from studying mathematical vectors in one lesson to classical civilisation in another, the artwork of Banksy, website building techniques, atomic structure and so on. We are able to immerse ourselves in many cultures, walks of life and professions for 6 hours every weekday. We aren't yet confined by the monotonous nature of the rat race and therefore have just as much experience to bring to the table as anybody else. Teenagers are also more likely to question and want to process information for themselves, rather than absorb it blindly.
2. "You wouldn't understand complex economics or the greater impact of policies."
This is an interesting point because it implies that the entire adult population are somehow all in the know about intricate economic structures and the consequences of political proposals. Admit it, it's not just young people who hide away the 'Stocks' app in a folder labelled 'useless' on their phone. You're all just as uncertain about how best to intervene in Middle Eastern conflicts and what the term 'sectoral cleavage' means as we are. Let's not pretend that there is an unquestionable positive correlation between age and intelligence.
3. "Young people are apathetic anyway."
I'm sure the 50,000 students who turned out in 2010 to protest against higher university fees would beg to differ. It is clear to me that the disengagement of young people is not the manifestation of apathy but the result of a lack of belief that we have the power to change anything. We have opinions and we care about the state of this country, there is just an overwhelming conviction that our opinions account for nothing in political settings. This lack of faith in our government representatives has infiltrated all age demographics, resulting in around 20% less of the population voting in 2015, in comparison to the turnout of the election in 1950. When you consider that online petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures can be totally ignored by government, it's quite understandable why this is the case. It's not young people who need to be criticised for not caring or paying attention, it's the elected representatives who find it so easy to pay no attention to us. According to ICM's survey of the Scottish referendum turnout, 75% of 16 and 17 year olds voted, this is monumental compared with 54% of 18-24 year olds and 72% of 25-34 year olds.
4. "What next? Why not let 10 year olds vote?"
Ah, the good old 'slippery slope' argument. It's hardly fair to compare the intellectual capacity of someone who has studied for around 13-15 secondary education qualifications to somebody who still has the luxury of 'circle time' in their school day. Whilst I fully respect (and am quite unnerved) by the fact that there are probably 10 year olds cleverer than I, votes at 10 is never a campaign I would support. This is because the basis of the votes at 16 movement is that of rights and responsibility. At 16, we are able to have sex with, marry and work for our political representatives, yet we are not permitted to vote for them. It is at 16 that we are expected to make huge life decisions and are first bestowed with adult responsibility. If a person can join the military, surely it is only right that they are able to decide what kind of government determines the forces' agenda.
In the last election the percentage of 18 to 25-year-olds who cast their ballots was 58%. This is a significant increase on the previous two elections, where 52% voted in 2010 and just 38% in 2005. It is clear that we are no longer content to have our futures ruined for us. If you still disagree with votes at 16, I dare you to label my peers and I as childish as we assemble and organise ourselves. In your conviction you won't be aware of the campaign's success until we are queuing up outside the polling station with you. Don't think we aren't prepared to be in this for the long haul either, votes at 16 has been on the British Youth Council agenda since before I was born and each year it gains more traction. Please do not assume that who is permitted to vote in the EU referendum will be the end to all this either - it is just the beginning.