Thursday, 21 October 2010

Speaking in favour of votes at 16.

The extension of votes to 16 year olds is something that I passionately believe in. Like others I too was 16 once. MPs have claimed that young people would rather be on the X-Box than putting an X in the box but I’m not sure I agree. Important decisions are being made right now that will affect the future of young people in this country and I think they should be allowed to have their say.

Here is a short snippet of my speech in the House of Commons on this issue:

Graham Jones (Hyndburn, Labour)
This is a unique and momentous moment, as it could open the door to votes for 16-year-olds in all elections. I would welcome that. We are in danger of marginalising young people, and we have to give considerable thought to which way we vote on this proposal, because we do not want to send out the wrong message to them. When I look around at young people, I see that they are growing up faster, certainly in my area.

We have a more diverse economy and young people have different career prospects: they expect to change jobs several times, and they are more interested in the future than they ever have been. A more uncertain future gives them more interest in the changing job situation. In my constituency, 15, 16 and 17-year-olds want to be involved in that debate. We see it in the schools and colleges where all the young people are involved in debating-more so than I can ever remember in my lifetime, and perhaps before that on the basis of what I hear from other people.

Charles Walker (Broxbourne, Conservative)
I do not mean to disparage 16 and 17-year-olds, but most of them want to be on the Xbox, not putting in the X in the box. Since the hon. Gentleman has been a Member of Parliament, how many 16 and 17-year-olds have written to him demanding the franchise at 16?

Graham Jones (Hyndburn, Labour)
That is a very cynical and jaundiced view to take towards 16 and 17-year-olds. The hon. Gentleman will not get many votes from 16 and 17-year-olds in his constituency, and he is probably in desperate need of some election training. However, I will leave that to his constituency: if he is going to lose it to 16 and 17-year-olds, I am quite happy about that.

Young people in general want to be involved in politics and take more interest in it. With issues such as climate change, politics has jumped a generational gap to 15, 16 and 17-year-olds, who are very interested in that because it is their planet that is being polluted. It is not just about climate change or jobs, but a series of issues that people of an increasingly young age seem to be gravitating towards. For example, there are big issues of teenage pregnancy. Decisions are being made about them in their formative adult years, and they want to be involved.

It is good to hear that young people are joining trade unions; Labour Members certainly welcome that. The TV debates encourage us to extend the franchise-I think that we all agree that young people in our constituencies were energised by them. The medium and the mode meant that young people could see politics in a different light, and there was an increase in interest and participation. I went around the polling stations in Hyndburn when I was elected, and many more young people were in the polling booths. I think that that contributed to the higher turnout at the election.

Let me extend the argument about extending the franchise, because I believe that it should apply to all elections. We have a by-election in Baxenden on 18 November, and our candidate, if I can plug him, David Hartley, was 18 only days before nomination. He cannot suddenly have become politically aware; he has built up to that. We should encourage young people into politics, and it is good that a young person has come forward. We must be clear that to be politically aware at 18 requires a build-up of knowledge, and 16 and 17-year-olds should participate.

Although the amendment is about the AV referendum, the principle is clearly broad. It is a watershed moment because if we give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote for the referendum, it opens up the argument for the future. Let us consider tuition fees, which my hon. Friend Chris Bryant mentioned. That assists the argument for extending the franchise. Parliament is discussing the differential charging of students. We could go back to the old debate about taxation without representation, but if we intend to subject young people to differential charging based on background, not ability to pay, we should extend the franchise to them. Today could be the day we start extending it.

The major argument against extending the franchise is lack of knowledge and experience among young people, but that is ageist and not based on young people's cognitive processes.

Charles Walker (Broxbourne, Conservative)
I know that the hon. Gentleman is making a heartfelt plea, and I quite like children-I have three of my own. Why cannot we leave them alone to let them get on with being children? They are not obsessed with getting the franchise. Sixteen and 17-year-olds want to chase girls, drink beer and have a good time. Let us stop accelerating the ageing process.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn, Labour)
Given that the hon. Gentleman is now encouraging his constituents aged 17 and under to vote against the Conservative party, I hope that he has more children.

It is claimed that young people do not have the experience and knowledge to vote. When my grandmother was 95, she had serious Alzheimer's, yet she still held the right to vote. Nearly all young people are far more informed than my grandma was in her later years, but we never thought about taking the vote from her. Saying that young people are not experienced or knowledgeable enough is not a strong enough argument. It does not reflect real life or how people experience it.

Indeed, I believe that 16 and 17-year-olds are often in a better position to make an informed judgment. There is no principled or consistent argument that justifies denying the vote to young people.