I never miss the opportunity to encourage young people in schools and colleges across the constituency to find their voice.
In the last month or so, I have been helping students with the launch of a magazine, listening to presentations from students on the National Citzenship Scheme, taking questions from pupils visiting Parliament and helping students with public speaking and ideas before they speak at a conference in London.
Encouraging schools to visit Parliament is something I am keen to do. The tour is a history lesson in itself, describing how our democracy was born and has been forged over the centuries. Pupils learn of the tensions between Parliament and Monarch which, by convention, still sees our Head of State barred from entering the House of Commons (on the basis that the last time this occurred, it caused the Civil War).
Every year, I join up with students from the Youth Parliament to promote the ‘Make Your Mark’ campaign. The aim is to encourage young people across the UK to vote on the issue they would most like to debate and campaign on. This culminates in a day in November where the House of Commons chamber is given over to a debate featuring youth representatives from each constituency. Last year, almost a million young people voted and the outcome was a debate and campaign on mental health.
All of this collaboration and activity leads me to a further conclusion: that the UK voting age should be lowered to allow 16 and 17 year olds the vote. Capturing voters at a younger age, when they have the enthusiasm, could encourage them to be a part of the democratic system and stick with it. Too many 18 to 24 year olds do not vote. Perhaps they have already moved on. The opposition parties support such a move. It disappoints me that my own party is unwilling to do so.
This week, I had the final question before the Prime Minister took to the dispatch box for PMQs. In a packed House of Commons chamber, I asked if the Government would consider lowering the voting age. To try to appeal to my sceptical party colleagues, I explained that young people are much more aware of the world around them (having the benefit of a curriculum and the knowledge of the Internet) than when I was at the same age. I also explained that young people tend to be economically and socially liberal and do not expect the state to provide everything for them, not least because they will have the longest repayment term of the national debt if it does. I finally remarked that it was the Conservative Party which had given the vote to women and the working classes so this reform would be in a proud tradition. The response from the Minister was along the lines of ‘I am afraid this is where my Honourable Friend and I disagree.’ Sitting alongside him was his boss, the Deputy Prime Minister, who, only two years ago was making the same case as me from the backbenches.
The theory goes that young people vote Labour and older people vote Conservative. This is patronising to both groups. The reality can be different (as I found for myself when I conducted a hustings in May in a local school with my General Election candidates and subsequently won the school ballot). A party or candidate will win votes from any age group if it has the policies and content which appeals, the ability to explain and sell those policies and does so in a positive and collegiate manner against those who argue the opposite. It’s not political rocket science: it’s how our schools have been teaching young people to behave for decades.