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Let’s continue the battle for democracy with votes at 16

Let’s continue the battle for democracy with votes at 16
4 min read

At a time when faith in our politics is at a low ebb, we must take the chance to give one and a half million young people a say in the future of their country, writes Jim McMahon 

Our politics is fragile, our country divided. We must lead the renewal of our democracy from the front; and central to that must be asserting the shared values which bind our United Kingdom.

This week MPs will meet in Westminster Hall to debate extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds across the UK.

But before we look to the coming week we should look back to our history.

In August we will be reflecting on 200 years since the Peterloo Massacre where working people fought for the right to vote and to be treated as equals in our democracy. In my own town five were killed and many more injured. When we meet in August this year we will not only reflect on the sacrifice of those who have gone before, but that we must take up the generational call to fight for progress today too.

Last year we did just that. For two years people in Oldham raised funds for a statue of working class suffragette Annie Kenney. Annie was born into humble beginnings and started working life in a cotton mill when she was just 10 years old. She joined the suffrage movement and became its most senior working class member.

Her statue in Oldham’s Parliament Square is stunning, with every ounce of bronze paid for by the donations of us all, no grants or government funding, just an inspired call to action.

But the call to action doesn’t stop because our hero now has a statue. By far the most inspiring outcome of the project was to make Annie a local household name, with her story being shared with families, friends and in our schools and workplaces. The statue stands as a reminder for us to take on today’s battle for democracy just like Annie did a hundred years ago, and the same way that the hundreds from Oldham who marched to Peterloo did 200 years ago.

The fight to be part of a franchise seems like another time in more ways than one, not just in historic terms, but because it feels as though the value of that collective endeavour has been lost.

Trust in politicians is low, turnout in many elections is dire and with Brexit causing deep divide it feels as though the progress of those who have gone before is at risk.

Extending the franchise in itself won’t fix politics, nor will it rebuild trust and active involvement in our democracy, but it is an important foundation. By providing meaningful democratic education in schools, and giving young people the chance to vote at an earlier opportunity, it not only connects voters with a purpose to vote, but it should give younger voters a voice at the ballot box at a time when so many tell me they feel powerless to effect change.

I first became involved in the Votes at 16 after being drawn for a Private Members Bill. After the avalanche of lobbies that quickly followed I sought cover from my local Youth Council. After hours of going through the merits of each of the subjects proposed it naturally arrived at a challenge. I felt the youth council members to be informed enough to help me select a Bill, but they had no power to select me, or anyone else as their Member of Parliament who would eventually vote on it. 

"Extending the franchise in itself won’t fix politics, nor will it rebuild trust, but it is an important foundation"

Time has moved on since then and while many of us campaigning for Votes at 16 point to Scotland as our nearest example of active engagement of young voters, it will be the case that 16 year olds in Wales will soon be given the right to vote.

And that provides an opportunity to reflect. We cannot be a United Kingdom when young people in Scotland and Wales have democratic rights and power, basic for a stake in society, that young people in England and Northern Ireland are denied.

It’s time to take this opportunity to give one and a half million people the right to vote, the right to challenge, the right to effect democratic change, and the right to have a real stake in the future of our country.

Jim McMahon is Labour MP for Oldham West & Royton

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