Michael Dugher: Young people can fight for their country... why can’t they vote for MPs?

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WHEN David Cameron met with Alex Salmond to hammer out the terms of a Scottish independence referendum, part of the agreement was to give 16 and 17-year-olds a say in the crucial vote.

Downing Street later insisted that they were not setting a precedent for general or other elections, but I believe it is a welcome opportunity to reopen the debate as to whether young people should be allowed to vote at 16 in UK elections.

Back in 2009, James Evans, a member of the UK Youth Parliament, made a speech that resonated with many when he said: “At 16, we can marry our MP, we can sleep with our MP and we can have children with our MP. We can sign up in preparation for fighting... potentially dying for our MP. And suddenly we are not mature enough to vote for them. What an absolute disgrace!”

I agree with James. Expanding the franchise would fix an anomaly and give younger adults a say in their future – a prospect which no doubt unnerves Conservative and Lib Dem Ministers who, over the last two and a half years, have taken away young peoples’ Educational Maintenance Allowance, trebled their tuition fees and left nearly a million 18-24 years olds out of work.

With confidence and trust in politicians at an all time low after the Parliamentary expenses scandal, allowing votes at 16 may be just what the country needs to engage young people in politics.

A worrying Electoral Commission study revealed in 2010 that only 44 per cent of 17-24 year olds were registered to vote. Instead of resigning ourselves to the fact that young people do not vote in high numbers, we should look at new ways to increase their participation. And extending the franchise could play a key part in this.

Professor Vernon Bogdanor, from the Institute for Contemporary History at King’s College, is also convinced that lowering the voting age is the right move.

He has said that giving young people the vote at 16 would bring substance to citizenship lessons in the classroom, empowering young people with a chance to practice the very social responsibility that they are rightly taught in our schools.

Social responsibility, and ensuring everyone has a stake in the country, is central to the One Nation vision that Ed Miliband set out in his speech at Labour party conference. Extending the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds could help achieve this, forcing politicians to listen.

One Nation is about tackling alienation and disillusionment. Many young people are the ones bearing the brunt of the harsh economic climate. In my constituency of Barnsley East, for example, a third of all job seekers fall into the 18 to 24 age bracket. Extending the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds would give them a tangible way of expressing their views.

Young people need a say as their future is synonymous with the future of the country as a whole. When a young person can’t get a job and is left languishing in long-term unemployment, this is not just a disaster for that person and their family, but for the whole country. The crisis of youth unemployment risks creating a generation that is disengaged from the economy, from society and from politics, a generation that believes that they have no stake in the country.

One Nation is also about preserving and indeed enhancing national institutions – like the National Health Service – that bind our country together. Votes at 16 would undoubtedly and importantly strengthen our parliamentary democracy.

Ed Miliband has been supportive of the principle of votes at 16 for many years and spoke out in favour during his leadership election campaign. He believes that politics needs to change and open up, and that the appetite for political renewal and change is greater now than ever.

Labour is determined to take this forward and that is why we plan to seriously look at Votes at 16 in our policy review which is set to inform Labour’s election manifesto in 2015.

This need to consider fresh ways to get more people engaged in voting was brought home with the Government’s dismal police and crime commissioner elections. Fewer than one in six cast a vote – the lowest ever participation in a national election. And in one polling station in Newport, not one person turned up to vote.

While the prospect of a Scottish referendum has now brought this issue to the fore, looking at widening the franchise has implications for the rest of the UK and it should be debated widely.

Votes at 16 is too important an issue for the whole of the country to be left to deals behind closed doors between David Cameron and Alex Salmond.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley east, shadow Minister without portfolio and a vice-chair of the Labour Party.