Marian Docherty: Will votes at 16 engage youngsters in politics?

Marian Docherty is Principal of Newbattle Abbey College.
Marian Docherty is Principal of Newbattle Abbey College.
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Throughout 2018, Scotland is celebrating the Year of Young People. As part of our Newbattle Conversations series, the college is looking at how to engage more young people in politics – including a discussion of whether they should be able to vote at 16.

The voting age was dropped from 18 to 16 for the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and then adopted for Holyrood and Scottish local elections which followed.

But at UK level, the voting age is still 18, so 16 and 17-year-olds couldn’t vote in the EU referendum in 2016 and they are also excluded from Westminster elections.

Our Newbattle Conversations event on 31 May will be exploring this issue and how we can involve young people in politics in contemporary Scotland. The standard-bearer for the ­campaign to bring the voting age down to 16 for all UK elections is ­Newbattle College’s local representative, Labour MP for Midlothian, Dani Rowley.

Dani was 27 when she won the ­Midlothian seat at the UK general election in June last year. As one of the youngest MPs at Westminster, she chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Votes at 16 – and has made reaching out to young people central to her approach to politics.

Dani, who followed her father Alex (a Labour MSP) into politics, is therefore an ideal person to lead the 2018 event in the Newbattle Conversations series.

The Conversations were launched in 2015 with the aim of ­stimulating debate during a renewed period of political awakening in Scotland – and stepping back from day-to-day political exchanges to take a wider view.

We have already heard from ­Professor Neal Ascherson and from Lesley Riddoch on Scotland’s place in Europe as part of the Conversations. We also recognised the value of local politics to our democracy with a council election hustings event last year.

The Newbattle Conversations series will culminate in a major conference to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath in 2020.

The Declaration was drafted at Newbattle and the 2020 conference is a perfect way to celebrate Newbattle’s significant role in Scottish ­history. Midlothian was also at the centre of British politics in 1880 when William Gladstone (who served four terms as a Liberal Prime Minister) ran his famous Midlothian ­Campaign, a series of lengthy set-piece speeches criticising his arch-rival, Conservative Benjamin Disraeli, over his ­handling of foreign affairs.

His approach has often been highlighted as a precursor of modern political campaigning and led to Gladstone winning the Midlothian seat, reinvigorating his career.

Gladstone’s campaign was made possible by extension of the franchise to working class men in 1867 and it seems fitting that Midlothian, through Dani Rowley, is again at the centre of a movement to change ­politics by enfranchising a new group of voters – this time 16-18 year-olds.

Newbattle students have always been keen to discuss the big political issues of the time and Dani will be joined on stage at the Conversations event by one of our former students, Kelly Drummond, who will talk about her own political awakening.

This is a great opportunity to ­discuss how to involve young ­people in politics and the role of direct engagement, especially through social media.

Engaging young voters through social media will be one of the big issues at the event, which is held at a time when the political focus is very much on Europe, with less than a year to go until the United Kingdom leaves the EU.

The event is also an opportunity to discuss how young people have responded to Brexit and whether there is a growing divide between younger and older voters. We look forward to a lively debate. Engaging Young People in Politics – is on 31 May at Newbattle Abbey College from 6-8pm.

If you would like to attend, call 0131 663 1921 or email office@newbattleabbeycollege.ac.uk

Marian Docherty is principal of Newbattle Abbey College.