Votes at 16
David Cameron must be confident that his conference pledge to scrap benefits for the under-25s will help the Tories win the next election, even if it leaves a million young people homeless and penniless. His promise that the young will ‘earn or learn’ rather than ‘opt for a life on benefits’ may be popular among welfare opponents, but it’s a nonsensical way to get the young into education, employment or training.
Last month, Cameron asked the Cabinet secretary, Jeremy Heywood, to look into the government’s strategy for reducing youth unemployment, in a tacit admission that their policies aren’t working. Through the billion-pound Youth Contract, employers are offered subsidies if they take on unemployed 18 to 24-year-olds (for some reason giving benefits to corporations is politically more acceptable than giving them to people). In its first year there were funds for up to 160,000 jobs; only 4690 people were hired under the scheme. Ofsted found schools were struggling to provide adequate careers advice after the government handed them this duty from local authorities. University applications were down 6 per cent this year, potential students deterred by the £9000 fees.
Perhaps Cameron thinks he has nothing to worry about. Young people are the least likely to vote: only 44 per cent of those aged between 18 and 25 turned out at the 2010 general election, compared to 76 per cent of the over-65s. And those who do vote are anyway more likely to vote Labour – which is no doubt one of the reasons for Ed Miliband’s plan to lower the voting age to 16. His announcement was met with predictable scorn in the right-wing press: ‘Our children’s generation is astonishingly uninterested,’ Charles Moore wrote in the Spectator. The Labour MP Tom Harris told the Daily Mail the idea was ‘an obsession of a tiny minority’. The British Youth Council (BYC) points out that lowering the voting age will enfranchise 1.5 million people.
Georgina Howarth, a 14-year-old from Cambridgeshire, said at the Labour Party Conference:
The bottom line is that the old men making these changes don't have to live through them. The very voices that should be heard the loudest in these debates are not heard at all. Is it any wonder that we are branded a generation that is politically uninterested when the politicians have no interest in what we have to say?
One way they try to make politicians listen to them is through the UK Youth Parliament, which is managed by the BYC. The 369 MYPs (at least one from each local authority) and 230 deputy MYPs, aged between 11 and 18, are elected by their peers; a million people have voted in youth elections in the last two years. MYPs represent their constituents’ views to MPs and councillors. Since 2009, they’ve held an annual debate in the House of Commons (the next one will be on 15 November).
UKYP’s key campaigns this year – decided by a nationwide ballot in which 253,000 people voted – called for equal marriage rights for all; more support for young people looking for work and an end to unpaid internships; scrapping the tiered minimum wage (under-18s get £3.72 an hour, compared to £6.31 if you’re over 21); cheaper public transport (once you turn 16 you’re no longer eligible for child fares); and an overhaul of personal, social and health education in schools.
Are the young people involved in UKYP among those likely to be affected by exclusion from housing benefits and Job Seekers Allowance? Some of them are: a recent survey of more than 6000 people involved with the BYC found 20 per cent had received free school meals (while 21 per cent came from black and minority ethnic groups, 13 per cent were gay or lesbian and 10 per cent were disabled – a lot more diverse than the Houses of Parliament). And in 2015, many of them will be old enough to vote.