After years of the Votes@16 campaign falling on the deaf ears of the powerful, it is finally starting to break through. Last September 16 and 17 year olds were given the right to vote in the Scottish Independence referendum; unfortunately not in the imminent general elections. A number of political parties are now in favour of Votes@16, the Green Party, Plaid, SNP and most of Labour.
What is it that politicians fear? The argument that’s often raised is young people are not able to make such important choices is defunct and discourteous. Young people at 16 are at a crossroads in their life to make many life changing decisions about their education and future careers. They can live independently, join the army, have a sexual relationship and access contraception (actually under fraser guidelines young people under 16 can) take out credit and most pertinently pay tax.It is telling that the rightwing parties are those that stand against this evolution of our electoral system, as young people trend to voting more to the left.
‘No taxation without representation’
The votes @ 16 debate opens up a contentious argument in Wales. Public engagement in politics is generally poor in the UK, particularly the 18 -24 age group.As we have seen since the financial crisis and particularly since the Condem government hijacking this as an opportunity for small state ideology. The deficit in young people’s ballot turnout has resulted in them being a target group with government austerity measures – tuition fees, EMA (in England) and the insidious attack of youth service provision.
Therefore it is integral to not just lower the voting age, but to ensure a seamless participation structure within our schools, communities, locally, nationally, all the way into engagement within the European Parliament. Therefore ensuring a politically informed transition into adulthood. Youth engagement in decisions that affect them make that fundamental connection between young people, citizenship and politics.
Sadly in Wales, just a few years ago we were getting there, in principle anyway. But cuts to youth services, has impacted upon community youth forums. School councils are less likely to function productively without youth work support, a teachers role is often over stretched, over stressed and over regulated,therefore school councils are given relatively low priority. The need for Local Authorities to have a Local Youth Council became a statutory duty in 2013, but this came too late. Youth Councils had been propped up by Cymorth funding which ended in 2010, austerity already putting financial pressures on Councils, therefore core funding investment into this agenda was limited and unrealistic.
What about Funky Dragon? (Young People’s Assembly for Wales) Funky Dragon was an amazing environment to socially empower and educate young people. It became an extended family for the many young people who became involved in this forum, representing their area of Wales. The commitment to young people’s voice from the staff and the young people to fight for positive change for the lives of others in Wales was inspiring, many caught the bug of political activism. In my 14 years’ experience of youth work, I have never witnessed an area of work that nurtures young people as confident and active citizens such as in the participation structures we had in Wales. I have seen many young people in this environment develop in to incredible young adults with pride.
However, for youth participation it requires decision makers to hand over a little of their power for true meaningful involvement to happen. That is where Funky Dragon hit a wall, progressing influence in policy development. Not for the lack of trying from the dedicated staff and young people. Every year they tried to engage with ministers to work on improvements within portfolios of interest, such as education, health, environment and transport, by inviting them to their AGM. This went from being poorly attended to not attended at all. AM’s should have been jumping at the opportunity to nurture young talent and enthusiasm by working alongside their local representatives not exclusively at this annual event, but all year long. So when the devolved Labour government pulled the plug on its funding last year, this was an opportunity lost to embed the ideas of the young into welsh policies. Yes we had the progressive development of the National Participation Standards (2003), heavily praised and promoted, leading on to development of the Young Inspectors programme and becoming a kite mark for services, ready to take hold of Wales, when its funding was also pulled. I ask did our politicians really understand the seven points raised within the participation standards? Or did they think they were exempt?
So when I hear opposition parties leading up to this election have a passive dig at Labour calling for a Youth Parliament in Wales; I ask where your voices of dissent last year? More importantly where were you for the thirteen years of Funky Dragons existence? Because quite frankly this tokenistic gesture is at the heart of the problem within youth participation in Wales. You can throw all the money in the world at it, but it takes adherence to the standards for it to happen. It needs to be a consummate balance between the fresh vision of our young, the genuine respect and experience of our adults in power.