A Change to the Voting System is the way to involve young people in Politics

By David Thomson

What were your memories of when you were 16 and 17 years-old?

Mine was when an Eric Cantona inspired Manchester Utd Double in 96. Particularly his winner in the FA Cup final against Liverpool at the famous Twin Towers of Wembley. Or Gazza scoring that fantastic goal against Scotland during Euro 96. Another memory was the “New” Labour landslide in the 97 General Election.

For a lot kids who are currently 16/17 year-olds, one of the most memorable things that will be remembered is the vote in the referendum on whether Scotland should be an Independent country. The reason this is significant is that for the first time ever in an election across the UK that 16/17 year-olds were allowed to vote.

This came about as part of the Edinburgh Agreement two years ago that gave power to the Scottish Parliament to decide on the voting age in what became the “Franchise” Bill, passed in June 2013 with a clear majority. The only party that was against it was the Tories who wanted the lowering of the voting age to be rolled out for all elections.

During the referendum campaigning groups were formed, like the pro-independence Generation Yes, that engaged with young people with issues that were relevant to them. By the time 18th September came along, 110,000 16-17 year old were registered to vote when the polls opened.

With the success of the Referendum in getting young people to vote, as part of the Scottish Governments legislative program and Smith Commission that was published last month, 16 and 17 year-olds will have the vote for a Scottish Parliament and Local Government elections. With voter turnout at 84 per cent, the question now is whether this momentum will be carried on to other elections, but based on past experience, it seems unlikely.

Political expert Professor John Curtis from Strathclyde University could see a trend happening when the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18,  saying: “What we do know is and what is perfectly clear is that the decision back in 1969 to reduce the voting age from 21 to 18 helped to reduce turnout. 18 to 21 year-olds have always been less likely to vote than those who are older. By extending the voting age to 16 year-olds will depress turnout further.”

This is not to say that 16 and 17 year-olds are not engaged with civic society. There are a lot of young people who are engaged with single issues, like Greenpeace and Gay Marriage, but are less inclined to be involved in party politics. This is why the Referendum was such a success. Edinburgh University’s Dr Jan Eichhorn, who has done two polls in 2012 and 2013 into the level of engagement of 16/17 year-olds for the referendum, said “young people are not less political than their adult counterparts, but their expression of political views runs though different channels and it is often around particular issues that they are interested in.”

The reason why 16/17 year-olds are not engaged is that the politicians are not listening to young people. Gary Paterson from NUS Scotland explains: “There are plenty of reasons why young people would not want to be continue to be involved in a democracy, if they feel that politicians, like the Liberal Democrats who make a pledge on Tuition Fees and throw it away the day after they get into power.”

The Scottish Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie, said in response: “Nick [Clegg] apologise about all that. He knows it was a huge mistake. We got to prove by our actions to restore faith. ”

Rennie goes on to explain how he engages with young people as an MSP: “I was out with a group from Dunfermline High and they were asking about the skatepark in Dunfermline. There was broken glass about around the park. I took it up with the [Fife] Council  and got them to meet the officials.”

Politicians across the political spectrum in Scotland have campaigned on allowing 16/17 year-olds to vote. The Lib Dems have campaigned on it for a number of years, as has the the SNP Government, which became policy at their 2008 annual confidence.  Drew Smith, Labour’s Shadow’s Consititual Spokesman explains how his party developed the policy of extending  the vote: “it certainly came from the youth wing of the party– Young Labour and Labour Students – who won that argument  inside the Labour party before it become party policy.”

To keep the momentum going from the Referendum there will have to be voting reform for all elections. As shown in the Referendum, if the electorate has a clear choice, they become engage because their vote does matter. In other elections, not only do you have a voting system that is confusing, but their vote isn’t seen to make a difference. Certain seats are safeguarded and youth confidence in the main three political parties is thought to be at an all-time low.

When it comes to keeping young people engaged in future elections, the current crop of politicians at both Holyrood and Westminister will need to think of President Clinton’s campaign tune during the 1992 US Presidential Election – Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop”.

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