How can there be a democracy that excludes a quarter of the population? First the vote was restricted to men with property; then it was restricted to men; then it was restricted to adults – at first to those aged 21 and over, then since 1970 to those aged 18 and over. Now there are widespread demands to reduce the minimum voting age to 16, given a massive boost by the success of the Scottish referendum in mobilising young people to take part – not just in the voting but also in the debate.
Because it’s not just about voting, not just about elections. By shutting young people out of that process we exclude them from many other kinds of democratic participation, at the national and at the local level. Too often they are not consulted or even remembered, because they are not counted as citizens.
But young people are citizens. They are members of society, members of the community, with a major stake in public services and in planning for the future – and with lots of ideas to contribute. Where bodies like local councils or health trusts have bothered to meet and talk with young people, they have found that they are intelligent, creative and resourceful – and policies and services have improved as a result of their participation.
And young people also have good ideas about how democratic participation can work better. Less hidebound by traditional ways of doing things, they are often able to cut through to what really works – and they tend to be better at listening, too!
Because our democracy really needs to be revitalised. At present power tends to stay in the hands of those who already have it (often meaning those who have wealth, too) and other voices are excluded. Young people are one of the groups who can point us to new ways of ‘doing’ democracy. We need an injection of that youth serum!
That’s why we are keen for young people – of whatever age – to take part in the Assembly for Democracy. This is a chance for people from every walk of life, and every kind of background, to share ideas for how to revitalise our democracy. So come to the Friends’ Meeting House, Manchester, on 18th April – bring your experiences, bring your ideas, and bring your enthusiasm. We need everyone to make this work!
Nigel Thomas of The Centre for Children and Young People’s Participation, University of Central Lancashire (website)