For decades the British Youth Council have been fighting for 16 and 17 year olds to be given the right to vote in all elections and referenda in the UK.
This vital step, which has already been tried and tested in Scotland to fantastic success, would not only represent greater equality before the law, but catalyse through the ballot box much that would improve the lives of young people. On this most of those reading this article will likely agree, but it is clear from our limited success that new ideas must be found and where better to look than among the countless youth organisations across Europe who have already succeeded. To find out more I attended the ‘#YouthUp politics: vote at 16 and rebooting democracy’ conference in Tallinn, Estonia, to listen to the experiences of others across the continent, and also share our own experiences in the UK. In what is becoming a regular ritual thanks to my remote address, it began with me braced, penguin-like, against the 4am Scottish winds, trying not to think of the St. Andrews to Edinburgh to Manchester to Helsinki to Tallinn odyssey that lay before me. My expectations were mixed, fair to say I wasn’t convinced we would reboot democracy, but surely the combined experience and thought-power of dozens of different organisations and nations could produce a new formula for success. Sadly, I must report no such formula was found, though there are promising signs for the future, and lessons to be learnt at home.
Firstly, it was encouraging to hear of countries which have already lowered the voting age in Europe, among the very first in the world to do so. Notably, and part of the reason the conference was taking place in Tallinn, Estonia has recently lowered the voting age. As a country it is at the forefront of complex voting reforms, alongside the vote at 16 also adopting online voting for national elections. The change, even before the election, has changed the political dynamic of the small baltic nation as politicians are reaching out to young people to find out what they want. It also seems, even before the election on the 15th October, that this is not a new voting demographic whose top issues are more skate parks and lower school hours, but that they are politically savvy and determined to secure their futures. Austria, a country which has had the vote at 16 since 2008, was also represented and talked of a shake-up in their politics too. However they warned all to take heed of their mistakes since, as since 2008 voter turn out for the new age group has consistently dropped, showing that after lobbying 650 MPs to back the vote, BYC must then step up to also lobby 2 million young people to take up the opportunity.
This conferences true success for me though was not generating ideas, but laying bare the problems which seem systemic throughout Europe’s remarkably similar campaigns. An identifiable absence which I feel must be highlighted is something you would imagine we as young people would exploit as an asset – humour. Look to social media, viral marketing campaigns, our recent general elections and referenda and it is humour which engages young people and sends out the message in an engaging and relatable and powerful way. What we, across all of Europe, are doing now is transforming an exciting proposition into a topic which is distant, repetitive, serious and dry being peddled by people mimicking the language and look of politicians. As long as this continues, the vast body of the people we claim to represent will remain dormant, and only a small, impassioned few will be left to take the fight to an opponent far larger than themselves. In the United Kingdom we seem to be making progress, but across much of continental Europe, greater satirisation of politics is a necessity to keep people informed, engaged and bring politics into everyday life. If this conference were a showcase for the future, rebooted democracy in Europe, though inspirational in displaying the work of the impassioned few, it would cause concern among even the most ardent of democrats in failing to engage the disillusioned majority.
Furthermore, it became apparent at this conference, as I have seen at all others, that across Europe youth organisations are determined to merge all young people into a great unspeaking blob with all views and opinions exactly aligned to that of the organisation. Almost in every passing statement you will hear “Young People in Europe want…” and “Young People of my city believe…” but this simply constitutes tyranny of the majority and is the antithesis of what the vote at 16 really represents. We need to escape from the view of ‘Young People’ with a capital Y and capital P, ditch the idea of a whole generation speaking with only one voice, and instead embrace the beautiful diversity of thought which we encompass. Freedom, opinion, debate – that is the true essence of Vote at 16 which we must harness.
Despite these problems, I firmly believe that we are steadily moving closer and closer to our own goals and can soon serve at the vanguard of the fight across the rest of Europe. It is imperative, especially as populism and hate seeks to divide us, that we stand in solidarity with those who are also seeking what is right. After Tallinn, though democracy may not have been rebooted, it is clear we stand united in the common goal of vote at 16 and hope that as one nation gains it, another and another and another will follow.
Ewan McCall United Kingdom Young Ambassador to the European Youth Forum