Greens are showing ‘Votes at 16’ is more than a phrase

[Reposted from my Shifting Grounds article here]

It seems like the distant past now, but I was the irritating age of 16 when the race was in full swing for the 2010 general election that brought the coalition government to power. 2010 was also the year that Educational Maintenance Allowance was slashed, the year my college mates had their tuition fees nearly tripled, and the year that sweeping cuts to the education budget were announced. All of this – and I couldn’t have a say over any of it.

Myself and thousands of other students and young people watched the first televised election debates in history, went to hustings, and quizzed the candidates. Some of us even door-knocked, leafleted and stayed up watching the results. But when push came to shove, we had no say over the policies that would be enacted in our name by the most reactionary government since Margaret Thatcher. We didn’t even have a chance of stopping them getting in.

Even those who can vote aren’t turned on by the process, with just 44% of 18-24 year olds voting in the last general election. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy – the young don’t vote because they are ignored, and they are ignored because they don’t vote. It’s no shock to learn that the over 65s – while not unscathed – have been relatively cushioned from austerity. 76% of them voted in 2010 – most of course, for the Conservatives. 

That’s why many are excited to see a radical experiment in democracy currently taking place. And, in what will come as a shock to those on the right of the Tory party, it’s happening in Europe. 16 year olds are finally getting a chance to vote.

It’s passed largely unnoticed in the Westminster bubble, but the European Green Party – the fourth largest group in the European Parliament – is taking the radical step of holding a pan-European ballot to determine who their two lead candidates for the 2014 European elections will be.

Funnily enough, UKIP, predicted by some to sweep the board in the upcoming May vote, won’t be joining the Greens in this exercise in grassroots participation. Or any of the other parties, in fact. And it’s no surprise – Green parties across Europe are widely known to be the most participatory. Here in the UK, we’re currently voting on which motions make the conference floor (to which anyone can submit ideas) at the upcoming Spring Conference in Liverpool.  

It’s safe to say democracy isn’t new to the movement, with most Green parties operating on a similar non-hierarchical and bottom-up basis. Democracy, after all, is at its heart about empowerment, and the ‘rank and file’ running the show – including otherwise-disillusioned 16 and 17 year olds unable to vote at their national elections. 

For the first time in history, this model of youth participation has now been extended across the continent, with anyone over 16 years of age who supports Green values able to vote online at www.greenprimary.eu. Free, simple and online, it’s direct democracy in action – something it’s fair to say the EU has been lacking in since its inception.

With austerity ravaging not only Britain but the whole of Europe, it’s time for those hit hardest by the cuts – the young – to have their say and to take part in a new and radical democratic project. One that we hope will spread in the pursuit of a fairer, greener and less market-obsessed world.

Young people’s chances to engage in this age of mass youth unemployment and disillusionment are sadly few and far between. Thankfully, the Greens are turning that around.

Hustings will take place in London this Saturday 18th, 2.00-4.00pm at ICO Conference Centre, 22 Berners Street, London W1T 3DD. The European #GreenPrimary runs until the 28 January.

Josiah Mortimer sits on the National Committee of the Young Greens, the youth branch of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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