It was a bleak Tuesday afternoon and I was on my way home from town on a bus. A young woman, clutching shopping bags and a large Starbucks sat beside me. The bus lurched forward and a splash of the coffee landed on my shoe. A moment of awkward, British apologising gave way to a pleasant conversation.
The young woman was called Kirstie and she was on her way home from work. She’d been in early and was back later that night. Kirstie works as an assistant carer to the elderly. She works for a private company and, alongside some study, makes house calls to elderly patients who need a little assistance in their daily lives. Kirstie, and others like her, are the backbone of our community. Her job is pretty anti-social, she’d told me, and she didn’t enjoy it like she’d hoped she would.
Last year, Kirstie and her team spent Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day covering rounds. For free. Unpaid. They weren’t scheduled to be there but had they not taken it upon themselves to make visits, their elderly patients would have spent Christmas Day sat in their own faeces.
It was a desperate situation and, as Christmas rumbled closer, she was desperate to avoid living through it again. I suggested a good place to start would be speaking to her MP. She asked me how to go about it and a quick google search brought up a website. It had times and dates that she could book in to see him. She sat up in her seat, empowered. She wanted to challenge him. Kirstie wanted to change her life, and that of her colleagues, for the better.
“Ah. Wait,” she said with a sigh, “I don’t think he’ll listen to me!”
I was poised to launch into an impassioned speech about democracy, turning up and being heard.
“I’m only 17. I can’t vote. Why should he care?”
I tried to muster something up about her being a future voter and that he had an obligation to help… and… well… really, she was right. She had no way of holding him to account. She needed representing but had no choice over who would do it. Kirstie had been treated with nothing but contempt – and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. Voteless. Voiceless. Powerless.
She isn’t alone. Hundreds of thousands of 16-17 year olds not only partake and contribute to society, but serve as its pillars. They are taxpayers. They work in the NHS. They sign up to fight for our country in the army. They fund and operate our schools, hospitals, roads, trains and armed forces… and we have chosen to deny them a say in how they are run. Not just locked out – being unable to vote leaves them exposed to exploitation. A government needn’t provide for a group of people if they cannot gift them the reward of power.
The arguments against are dismal and varied. Often those politically unpopular with younger voters make noises about apathy, understanding and readiness. One former MP, David Nuttall, attempted to claim extending 16 year olds the right to vote would open them up to sexual exploitation. I wish I were making that up. He was rightly slapped down, but it demonstrated how desperate the case against has become.
Critics are quick to point to a lack of engagement from young people without ever actually including them in the political discourse in the first place. Apathy in the young is only ever a product of denying them the right to be interested. Why would you engage in democracy if you have no chance of taking part in it?
Not to mention that voter apathy exists throughout generations. 31% of registered voters didn’t turn out in this year’s General Election. They couldn’t be bothered. Didn’t fancy it. Do we, by the same token, strip them of the right too? If voter apathy were an argument against, the very idea of democracy wouldn’t survive. It is the job of politicians, the community and the engaged to strive to make people want to vote. The answer has never been to refuse them the right to do so.
The most compelling case, though, has to be that of Kirsty. How can it possibly be right that somebody can find themselves walked upon and actively denied the chance to hold somebody to account for it? The decisions Kirstie should be able to make are not just about her future, but about the life she lives today.
I believe future generations will look back in amazement at the resistance this faced. It will be hard to believe there was even a struggle at all. We can, however, bring about that change now.
On Friday 3rd November, Parliament will debate MP Jim McMahon’s Private Member’s Bill, proposing lowering the voting age to 16 and making more resources available to teach students how to participate. Today, you can write to your MP and ask them to support it. It’s not as hard as it may sound. Enter your postcode in this website and you are two clicks away from emailing them. Tell them how you feel. Tell them why you believe they should back this change. You can be heard and help a new generation be heard too.
The case against has run out of steam. There is nowhere left to hide. There are no more plausible reasons to withhold democracy from a group of people who are, simply, entitled to it.