Votes at 16

Election - Young Voter Casts Ballot
Should 16-year-olds be given the right to vote?

Oldham Youth Council has set the ‘cat among the pigeons’, or at the very least focused minds with their latest motion to be heard at council this week.

Should 16-year-olds be given the right to vote?

I must admit to being split on the issue. The motion has forced me to research and think through the arguments for and against, ahead of the meeting. That said I could do what many in politics do, which is to either vote ‘yes’ because the campaign ‘for’ is far more advanced than any ‘no’ campaign on the subject – and as such its more popular among those who are vocal on the subject – or I could just vote ‘yes’ because it’s a fashionable thing to support.

The matter should be taken seriously because in many ways it poses a wider question about inclusion and how we get more people to see the importance of voting – and to understand the consequences and benefits.

With turn out at the last local elections at 33 per cent the majority were at home in a sit down protest, or more likely indifferent. The national parliamentary elections faired far better at 61 per cent.

For most people who are not interested in politics the day can pass by unnoticed. Even those who have put their cross in their chosen box in the past feel their individual vote wouldn’t make a difference.

In Parliament, and even in local councils, it is far too easy to be sucked into a very narrow way of thinking and making sure you continue to see the bigger picture is a skill in itself. We are surrounded by either professionals paid to ‘manage’ the decision making process or ‘people like us’, you know political geeks, who love the intrigue and debate on any given subject. I expect most ‘normal’ people are somewhere in between.

Thankfully, the residents of Oldham aren’t shy in coming forward with ideas, suggestions and when needed a harsh reminder now and again that any democratic chamber should be a representation of the people it serves.

We just need to make sure we sit up and take note and not simply dismiss out of hand the real concerns and issues people raise – or try to explain them away.

There is a real case for a more fundamental redesign of our democratic structure, which will meet with cheerleaders and objectors.

Should we have term limits? To stop being a politician becoming a lifestyle or career choice should we be restricted to serving a maximum of say two or three four years terms?

Well that’s me gone within months of my 10 year anniversary as a councillor… turkeys don’t vote for Christmas…

Should we have all out local elections every four years? People could affect real change very swiftly, and four years should be enough for any administration to prove its worth – it could save money too.

Should Parliament be modernised to become more representative of society as a whole? I’m pretty sure most of the UK doesn’t look like Parliament – unless of course we are a secret nation of Oxford and Cambridge political animals, or those who through wealth and opportunity have been positioned in life, almost ‘born to rule’. It appears the system certainly encourages that.

And how should votes be counted? First past the post is clean and easy to understand, but you clearly don’t get a Parliament which reflects ‘voter intention’ or the share of the vote each party gets.

Should there be a financial limit on donations? The Tories claim the trade unions buy Labour votes – I should say most trade unions members would say they don’t get listened to at all. The large donations to the Tories have led to questions about whether  big business is getting tax and policy advantages from the current government.

In my opinion you couldn’t do that without seriously looking at the cost of elections. Making contact with every voter isn’t easy or cheap.

Should we introduce compulsory voting? That’s easy for me – YES – allow people more ways to vote such as online voting and give the ‘none of the above option’. There are then few excuses not to take part.

So failing any agreement on structural changes which really would challenge the status quo and reading the arguments for and against votes for 16-year-olds, I’m left thinking ‘why not?’

I’d like to think turnout would rocket, but I’m not convinced it would if done in isolation. That isn’t to say all the arguments ‘for’ really hold water – you can’t, for instance, buy alcohol or gamble at 16 so pointing to things you ‘can’ do at 16 isn’t a balanced argument.

I am though of the opinion that if schools and colleges do enough to educate young people, and continue to support the work of youth councils and the youth parliament, then changing the system so there isn’t a 2 year gap before people are given the opportunity to vote in other elections makes sense.

It also makes sense that if people are affected by decisions being taken on their behalf then they should have a say over who makes those decisions.

I might just make one plea to the voters of tomorrow – if you do go and vote tell your parents why you voted. It may even inspire the 39 to 77 per cent of over 18s who don’t vote in elections in Oldham to go out and exercise their democratic right.

We are modernising the council and democracy in Oldham – 400 plus viewers watching our council meetings is more than I ever thought was possible. Our Youth Council is one of the best – if not the best in the UK – and the very fact that they have raised this issue and have the power to raise the debate and mandate a vote is testament to how far we’ve come in Oldham.

Eric Pickles – this is democracy in action. Feel free to tune in!

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