It doesn’t’ seem too long ago that we had the commons debate in Parliament, 3rd November to be exact. But despite our frustrations on the day it is clear that a fire has been well and truly lit under the votes at 16 issue. It can’t and won’t be ignored. And now it seems there are whispers of support all across the Tory camp.
While the debate on the Private Members Bill was curtailed by a small number of filibustering Tory MPs, it was evident that there was a body of support with over 160 MPs in parliament to back the Bill. It was a bill which was signed by every party sitting in the commons bar just one, the DUP. Importantly, on that day I know that those few were not representative of many other Tory MPs who support progression. There were some brave but lonely Conservative voices in the Chamber that day, and I salute their courage in standing up to the shrinking old guard in their ranks.
But any government seeking to block progression where there is growing support is rarely foolish enough to rely on the loudest objectors. They would have read the mood among their own MPs and realised the quiet few is growing to a quiet majority.
Since then the mood has undoubtedly changed. Some prominent Tories are now finding their voices, including former Education secretary Justine Greening who said the issue can no longer be ignored. It is striking for those who lazily put down 16 and 17 year olds as somehow not being ready to vote, that now two former conservative Secretaries of State for Education are in support. They have no doubt seen first-hand the way younger people can be engaged, do understand often complex political arguments and are keen to play an active role in our democracy.
And last month George Osborne claimed a majority of Conservative MPs now support votes at 16, and in fact see it is inevitable. While there is cross party support, it has been Labour driving this onto the agenda. My colleague Cat Smith recently pointed out that you can become a paid-up member of the Conservative Party at 15, allowing you to vote in their leadership elections – which in some circumstances can mean selecting the next Prime Minister. And Peter Kyle, Labour MP for Hove, has a second private members bill around the issue in May. Last week Danielle Rowley eloquently laid out the case for votes at 16 in a Westminster Hall debate. But the Minister, Chloe Smith, who has previously said she supports votes at 16, stood by the Government’s stance on denying the vote to more young people.
So what next? What we don’t want to do is to draw battle lines between the majority of Parliamentarians who support the issue, and the shrinking number of Conservatives who oppose it. Which is why we want a proper dialogue on this issue across Parliament, where the evidence can be listened to and the voices of young people heard. Votes at 16 is a reality in Scotland, and it is now soon to be so in Wales too. So there is plenty to be discussed on the potential for this in England.
It is time for the Government to reflect. The sands are shifting quickly under the Prime Ministers feet. She doesn’t want to find herself yet again cut adrift from an issue that is widely supported and fast gaining broad popularity. But also I don’t want the nuances and opposing arguments to votes at 16 to be lost or ignored. I want to see this issue debated, and at the same time I will match opposing arguments all the way.
There is however a danger that the debate ends up as a tit-for-tat exchange about the varying legal rights of 16 and 17 year olds. This is a debate about the franchise. Specifically it is about engraining the habit of going out to vote early on in someone’s life; equipping them with knowledge of how our democracy works; and renewing a sense of civic duty, belonging and personal responsibility at a time when these values often feel threatened. Young people’s votes will be placed for the party that comes forward with the policies and intentions that best represent them, their families, their communities and their country. It is our job as MPs, regardless of our Party, to inspire people of all ages to want to vote for our vision for the country.
I have my own inspirations for keeping votes at 16 on the radar. I am proud to come from Oldham, where five people sacrificed their lives at Peterloo demanding the right of working people to vote. Oldham is also the home of working class suffragette Annie Kenney, who was imprisoned for fighting for the right of women to vote. All those, and thousands more through our history, decided that they weren’t willing to accept tired excuses or be frustrated by those in power seeking to deny others the same rights.
When I sat down with members of the Oldham Youth Council they were clear that they did not just want to be asked what they thought, they wanted a meaningful stake in our democracy too. As the mood shifts we should be more hopeful than ever that we are getting closer to expanding the franchise, once more for the better.