Lowering the voting age is now essential

On 24th January, MPs voted in favour of a proposal to lower the voting age in all UK elections from 18 to 16. The Labour Party has showed its support for the move, with Ed Milliband claiming that it is necessary in order to ‘give young people a say in their future’.

Despite not having the right to vote, 16 and 17 year olds are active members of our society and hold a variety of responsibilities within it. They can get married and pay income tax. They are able to join the army, and are routinely sent off into armed conflict. The age of criminal responsibility in the UK is set at 10 – yet people currently have no say in the laws which they are subjected to until the age of 18. It is both unfair and illogical to deny 16 and 17 year olds a democratic voice in a society which both legislates for them, and in which they are expected to participate.

The lowering of the voting age is more essential now than ever before. The problems facing young people today are well-known: the scrapping of EMA, burgeoning student debts, rising rent costs and an insecure job market. With the Tory/Lib Deb coalition’s dogmatic adherence to austerity, and their failure of imagination and ambition in tackling the root causes of youth unemployment, this trend will only continue. And yet this age group are rarely the recipients of much sympathy and attention from politicians or the press.

The attitude to pensioners could not be more different, as shown by the media’s response to Osborne’s 2012 budget, and the government’s fear of tampering with free bus passes or the winter fuel allowance. This is not least because pensioners head to the ballot box in droves, whereas no such political incentives arise when it comes to cutting EMA or other services for those in their late teens. Extending the franchise would encourage politicians to engage with the concerns of young people, who are currently being neglected by the unyielding hierarchies of recession Britain.

Aside from questions of fairness, there are more far-reaching, cultural imperatives for giving 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote, which stem from the troubled state of our current political system. The vast majority of teenagers currently feel alienated from and disillusioned with mainstream politics. The doorstep tropes of ‘all politicians are corrupt’ and ‘all the parties are the same’ may be exaggerations, but they are entrenched in people’s consciousnesses and are developed at an early age. This sense of disconnect is exacerbated by the fact that, at an age when many people are developing their own views and ideas, they also feel so disempowered within the political system.

By participating in this system from a younger age, voters would be encouraged to consider how politics affects their own lives, and take an active interest in election campaigns. A transformation in attitudes among young people will only come about through a gradual, cultural shift, where the current trends of cynicism and distrust of politicians are replaced by a desire to actively engage and effect change in society. This seems unlikely to occur when 16 and 17 year olds are expelled from the democratic process.

Politicians from all parties are fond of preaching, often from the pages of think tank pamphlets, about ‘regaining the public’s trust’ and ‘speaking a language that people understand’. Unless this is superseded by concrete policy changes, these words are all utterly meaningless. Allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote is not the absolute panacea of course, but it would go a long way in extending public engagement with politics, and in the long term strengthening the relationship between politicians and the electorate.

By Tim Gallagher

High rents or homelessness – the choice for young people

The UK is in the grips of an urgent housing crisis. New home building has ground to a halt. Council housing is in scarce supply, with remaining stock in danger of being sold off at cut prices. High house prices and the giant deposits that go with them have made home ownership a distant, barely attainable dream to most young people. Instead of being able to save for a mortgage, more and more people are spending significant and unsustainable proportions of their salaries on private rent.

It is time for politicians to prioritise housing. In order to address its housing crisis, the UK needs to build more homes and better regulate the private rental sector.

Building New Homes

The private sector alone cannot be relied on to build the new homes the UK so desperately needs. Instead of addressing the problem directly through building more homes on brownfield sites the coalition government continues merely tinker with the planning system and threaten to build on the country’s greenbelt.

Where the government has failed, Labour councils are leading the way. Southwark, Camden, Islington and Hackney councils will deliver a significant number of new homes. Thanks to these Labour Councils, London will get its first new council housing in around two decades. In Manchester the Labour-run council has announced a groundbreaking deal with the Greater Manchester Pension Fund to deliver more than 200 new affordable homes in the city.

This is very welcome news, but local councils alone cannot solve the growing housing crisis in Britain. The next Labour government needs to put housing at the top of the agenda with a bold set of policies which will create the new homes, and jobs, that we so desperately need.

Regulating the private rental sector

Failure to address the growing housing crisis has led to an explosion in the welfare bill because of higher rents caused by a shortage of homes. Rather than being spent on new homes, government cash has poured into the pockets of private landlords.

Many people dream of owning their own home, but sadly they feel that it is just that, a dream. Both house prices and private rents are sky high. The credit crunch has made mortgages are harder to come buy, with banks requiring substantial deposits. Would-be first time buyers are forced to rent privately while they try to save. A combination of high rent, low interest rates and a general squeeze on living standards, makes it more and more difficult for people to save the money required for a 20% or even 10% deposit.

In 2001, just 10.1% of English households rented from private landlords. Today over 20% of households in the UK rent their home from a private landlord. As the number of private renters increases, so too does the need to regulate the private rental sector. High rents are fueled by high demand, short-term contracts and sadly often by unscrupulous landlords and letting agents.

From landlords who fail to adequately maintain their property, to letting agents charging rip-off fees and encouraging inflation-busting annual rent increases, renting private is all too often a frustrating experience.

In order to address this, many local authorities are turning to Social Letting Agents. Social Letting Agents are not-for-profit organisations that aim to connect good tenants with good landlords. Both landlords and tenants can feel ripped off by commercial letting agent fees. Social Letting Agents can also encourage good practice like longer term contracts and less frequent, more reasonable rent increases.

It is important to note that New York, France, Spain and Germany all have sensible, modern forms of regulating private rents. This includes limits on how much a landlord can increase rent by each year.

Time to prioritise housing

The coalition government are failing on housing. Likewise, housing was perhaps the biggest failure of the last Labour government. The New Labour housing agenda was one that focussed almost exclusively own home ownership at the expensive of the growing problems in other sectors of the housing market. So long as middle England’s already over-inflated house prices kept going up, the reasoning went, the government was doing its job. A revolving door at the Department for Communities and Local Government (and its predecessor departments) with a different housing minister almost every year only added to the sense that housing was not a priority.

Labour has realised that it is time to prioritise housing. Ed Balls’ call for the government to use the revenue raised from selling the 4G phone licenses to build 100,000 new affordable homes is an indication that housing is finally moving back up the Labour Party’s agenda. MPs like Jack Dromey are attacking the rental system for failing families. The is a growing recognition that “Right to buy” has eaten itself and while the building more houses will dramatically improve the situation, more needs to be done for people who are renting right now.

An apathetic generation?

With disproportionately low voter turnout among young people in elections, it is easy to claim that our generation is apathetic. It is true that young people are less likely not only to vote, but also to be a member of a political party than the rest of the population. However, to claim that young people don’t care about politics is totally wrong. Polling and recent events have shown young people care greatly about politics and parties need to reengage with them.

Looking at the student demonstrations from 2010 over tuition fee hikes and the abolition of Educational Maintenance allowance it is clear to see that young people are not apathetic. In the winter of 2010 young people brought London to a halt numerous times in fighting not to be saddled with debt. Furthermore the demonstrators were not just ‘middle class kids’ demanding free degrees, their ranks were swelled by pupils from low-income households attending schools and sixth forms who would be hit by the cut in Educational Maintenance Allowance.

It cannot be said that young people are apathetic, despite their electoral turnout. Polls and focus groups back this up. The evidence shows that most young people are, in fact, interested in politics and indeed express willingness to do campaigning. Furthermore, it is clear that most young people do, in fact, discuss politics and take an interest in it. Therefore the idea that young people simply do not care about politics is totally false.

However, though it is certainly not the case that Fukuyama was at all right in his assertions of “The end of history”, it is the case that our generation still is particularly badly affected by the 1989 “post-ideological” disease that gripped much of the world throughout the 1990s but is only just ebbing away with the 2008 financial crash and the resulting offensive of austerity. For instance, from my experience in student activism, I notice a disengagement from parties and traditional political models. Much activism among students is directed through charities, NGOs such as Amnesty and “ethical” campaign groups such as Student HUBs. Many who would make brilliant political party activists instead focus on these organisations.

As a student of politics, on more than one occasion lecturers have asked “who in this hall is a member of a political party”, and roughly one-tenth of the students present would raise their hand. It seems even students of politics are not sufficiently enthused by parties to join them. Indeed even the global Occupy movement could be criticised for lacking in ideological and political direction. Speaking to politically engaged students, identification with concepts of left or right seems remarkably low, let alone ideology, let alone political parties. It seems that not only is our generation alienated from electoral politics, it is also alienated from political ideas.

Ultimately I think this lack of ideological or class-based politics among this group of young politics students and activists can be attributed to the defeats suffered by the left in the 1980s which were cemented before our generation came to political maturity. Throughout that decade the labour movement suffered defeats at the hands of a global neoliberal offensive, culminating in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall with commentators remarking that the ideological and class conflicts were now finished.

In Britain, this trend was manifested in New Labour’s acceptance of neoliberal economics and the “third way” with Blair naively declaring that “we’re all middle class now”. I would be the first one to challenge the assertions that ideology died in 1989, but the idea was so hegemonic at the time that it practically became the truth as social-democratic parties across Europe embraced the free market.

With our generation growing up in such a political climate, where ideology and class were dirty words and political parties attempted to shed much of their footings in these concepts, it is no wonder then that young people are not only unenthused by electoral politics and parties, but also are alienated from political and ideological concepts such as class.

However I feel that this post-ideological trend among young people is fast coming to an end. With the financial crisis of 2008 and resulting high unemployment it is clear that the victory of the free market and neoliberalism in 1989 was a hollow one and ideology has palpably not come to an end as the onslaught of austerity (and resistance to it) rages across Europe.

Indeed a new generation of young activists is now engaged in the resistance to this neoliberal offensive, from the young people who rallied behind Melenchon and Hollande in the French election to the youth on the demonstrations in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland against austerity and indeed to the student protests against tuition fees and EMA cuts in Britain. Across Latin America, with the rise of the “pink tide” of left wing governments, young people are highly engaged in the social movements mobilising in poor urban neighbourhoods.

Nonetheless, despite this apparent interest and indeed commitment to politics, there still exists the fact that young people do not turn out to vote in anything like numbers that they should. There is clearly a gap between their apparent political engagement with politics generally and their engagement with electoral politics specifically.

There can be no doubt that one of the reasons for this disengagement from electoral politics is down to the lifestyles of young people. The differences in turnout between young and old can be attributed to the relative stake that they feel they have in society. Young people are likely to be relatively less secure in terms of housing, employment (if indeed they have a job) and more generally less well-off and more vulnerable. This leads many young people to feel alienated from society, making them less likely to identify with electoral politics and be disengaged from most mainstream political activity. It is the case that, for Britain’s youth, all that is solid does indeed melt into air which leaves them feeling like they are not really part of society.

Indeed under the coalition these problems facing young people are going to get worse as the Tories preside over rocketing youth unemployment, attacks on rights in the workplace and savage cuts to housing benefit making young people ever more vulnerable; eroding society and further alienating people from their communities.

Further polling suggests that many young people in Britain feel that politics is just not “aimed” at them. Further empirical studies find that parties fail connect with young voters and simply do not register with their political agenda. Ultimately this is the fault of the political parties. All too often parties will target specific groups of voters who they know will turn out and ignore groups who will not. As young voters’ unlikeliness to turn out makes them more ignored by parties, being ignored makes them less likely to turn out and therefore they get locked in a vicious cycle of political disengagement.

From the Labour Party’s point of view, this ignoring of young voters cannot go on. In 2010 Labour lost the election as so many of its voters had been disenchanted by a decade of neoliberal economics and a failure to tackle inequality and so didn’t turn out. Winning back these people who have been disengaged from politics must be at the core of the Labour Party’s strategy and winning over young voters has to be an integral part of this. Already Ed Miliband has made welcome steps in putting distance between himself and this, ultimately electorally damaging, political approach of New Labour by attempting to better emulate European social democracy and treat inequality and unemployment seriously.

Furthermore, for years the Labour Party has denied young members the youth section that they deserve. Young Labour still lacks full constitutional autonomy from the Labour party, denying young members the right to decide how they want the youth section to be run; and Young Labour groups lack access to membership lists, making local organisation highly difficult. I recently attended a European Young Socialist summer camp in July and was amazed at the strong, autonomous youth sections that Labour’s sister parties have which have many enthusiastic young activists with a real voice to affect their party. By emulating this model, Labour can begin to re-engage with young voters and activists.