“I’d like to help you son, but you’re too young to vote”

Angela SmithAngela Smith on making it easier to connect young people into our parliamentary democracy

When Ed Miliband announced at our recent Party Conference that a Labour government would allow 16 and 17 years to vote in all elections, I was surprised by the whoop of support and standing ovation that pledge received – and from all ages.

Young people themselves convinced me of the sense of lowering the voting age – and oddly not because they were in favour. It came at the end of a long discussion session with a group of about 60 school students from 15 to 17. They quizzed me and we discussed a whole range of issues from the environment to the economy, from schools to jobs, human rights, sexism, animal welfare – you name it, they were interested and had views!

But when I asked if they thought they should be able to vote at 16, I was staggered that they were against it.

Given their passion for the issues they had raised I fully expected them to want to vote as well. It wasn’t that they didn’t care about issues – but because they cared too much. They said they didn’t think they knew enough, that they didn’t know anything about politics and political parties. They thought they should know more and have more information before they voted.

How impressive is that? If only every voter wanted to be as well informed about issues that affected them. These young people were engaged but they hadn’t yet connected that engagement, and that caring and campaigning on issues, with voting.  And that’s the challenge.

Too often young people think they can’t engage in the political process and can’t contact elected representatives as they don’t have the right to vote.  

As Eddie Cochran sang of his problems in his 1958 hit Summertime Blues: “Well I called my congressman and he said ‘I'd like to help you son but you're too young to vote’".

We can change that.

But politicians have to send consistent messages and whilst the government claims to want wider engagement in politics the inappropriately named and now infamous Transparency in Lobbying Bill (or more accurately ‘The Gagging Bill’) seeks to disengage campaigning from the natural political process of voting.

We want young people to be involved. And not just by voting at elections, but by caring about issues and campaigning. Labour strongly opposes the government’s plans that put such inappropriate and undemocratic boundaries on that engagement.

So many younger people I meet do engage in politics, even if they don’t recognise it as that, though campaigns and issues. We should encourage and not curtail it. Voting at 16 would be a start, and stopping the Gagging Bill could be another big step forward.

Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is a member of Labour’s Shadow Frontbench in the Lords and a deputy Chief Whip

Published 25th October 2013

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