Jan Royall on ensuring current and future generations of youngsters have a stake in our democracy
Today is National Voter Registration Day and I pay tribute to Bite the Ballot for their great initiative. They are aiming to register a quarter of a million young people to vote, and I have absolutely no doubt they will achieve this – helped by the brilliant support of those involved in Teach First.
There could be no more appropriate day for the publication of The Electoral Reform Society’s polling on young people and electoral registration. The research is welcome but depressing as it reveals the scale of the problem we have. For democracy to thrive it has to be nurtured by votes: those crosses in the ballot box which are a means of empowerment and bringing about change.
It will take a monumental effort to tackle apathy amongst our youngsters, much of it understandable in a political system that’s failing them by high unemployment, high university fees, lack of affordable housing and little hope of a decent pension. But for political priorities to change, we need greater engagement – and national politicians have a duty to provide the information and tools to do this.
Labour is committed to extending voting to 16 and 17 year olds, and to improving citizenship lessons in schools. The Coalition however, have all but removed citizenship from the landscape. From September they will further encourage it in schools – good, but it’s simply not enough. An inspiring citizenship curriculum should be taught everywhere – including free schools and academies – so young people grow into informed, responsible adults with a sense of civic duty. Schools should also encourage and facilitate everyone aged 16 to register.
My Shadow Cabinet colleague Sadiq Khan said in response to the ERS poll, “by recklessly speeding up moves to individual electoral registration, and stripping out key safeguards put in place by Labour, the government is taking an enormous risk with the health of our democracy”. I welcome therefore, the announcement that the government is working with a range of organisations including Gingerbread, Mencap and the Hansard Society to encourage people to register.
But there are many more ideas that should be considered, especially in relation to making voting a habit. For example, when issuing national insurance number cards, driving licence applications, student council tax exemption forms and UCAS application forms, why not include an electoral registration form? Indeed, why not automatically register every young person who reaches voting age?
I am, of course, a Labour politician but I make these suggestions as a citizen concerned about our democratic system. As I always say when speaking to schools and colleges, I don’t mind how people vote but I care deeply about whether or not they do.
Most people’s perception of politics in our country is that it is broken, impenetrable, and dominated by an elite who don’t understand day to day realities. They don’t think they should get engaged because they don’t think they can. That’s why the reforms to our party announced by Ed Miliband at the weekend are so important. It will enable us to change our politics, do things differently and bridge the gap – and I am sure it will be a catalyst for other parties to change too.
So, as we mark this first National Voter Registration Day, I look forward to a time when citizenship takes its rightful place in our schools, when young people register to vote, and then use that vote to influence policies and help shape our society. A time when our politics is truly in touch with all of the concerns, needs and aspirations of all people in our country.
Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LabourRoyall
Published 5th February 2014