Judging by the numbers who attended this year’s student climate protests, it’s easy to assume that the youth of today are unilaterally hyped to change the world. The unfortunate reality, however, is that voter turnout for 18- and 19-year-olds is low. In the 2017 election, 43 percent of them didn’t vote. That means hundreds of thousands of young people who won’t have had a say on changes to university fees, transport costs, minimum wage and a whole swathe of other policies that could seriously impact their future. Not to mention the fact that if they did all turn out to vote, they would have the power to swing certain seats.
But fear not! There’s a whole bunch of under-18s who, despite not being old enough to vote, have a lot to say about the policies affecting them and their peers. This was evident at VICE’s The Future Debate, hosted as part of the UK Student Climate Network’s #YOUTHVOTE campaign at Hoxton Hall in east London last weekend. Young representatives from the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour came together to discuss key issues facing young people.
Here’s what they thought about lowering the voting age, the environment and education. Mr. Johnson, beware!!
LOWERING THE VOTING AGE
Nellie Gawne, representing the Conservatives, tells the audience that lowering the voting age isn’t a priority for the Conservatives. “I think being able to get married at 16 or being able to get pregnant at 16 are more personal issues,” she says. “It doesn’t affect the wider United Kingdom.” She adds that under-16s would vote for what their parents wanted, which is why there’s no Tory policy on lowering the voting age. She also thinks that many government policies do not affect young people, such as mortgage interest rates.
Both the Labour and the Lib Dem representatives, however, feel that lowering the voting age is crucial to a fair democracy. Labour’s Ansh Bhatnagar says that as Labour’s youth wing was as large as the Conservative party's membership in 2018, he backs the Labour policy to lower the voting age to 16.
“Our democratic right to vote is one of the most important things that we have,” says Stephanie Holmes from the Lib Dems. “People should be informed in schools about this.”
The Conservatives' policy on climate change is arguably the weakest of the three major parties, with no mention of it in their manifesto and a commitment to net-zero by as late as 2050. “I think 2030 would be too soon for the economy,’” Gawne, from the Conservatives, tells the audience. “If you do it too quickly, the economy and business will be affected and then jobs will be affected, then climate change will be at the bottom of the agenda.”
Gawne later says that she is against fossil fuels. However, the Conservative pfarty have in the past backed fracking to release shale gas – an untypical fossil fuel. The Conservatives have since announced a temporary ban on fracking, after widespread public outcry and, er, a few earthquakes. Gawne says that she doesn’t agree with the Conservatives on their former pro-fracking stance. The Conservatives also support a third runway at Heathrow, something that would allow 700 extra carbon-guzzling flights a day.
Labour believes that Conservative environment policies are too slow. “Labour has committed to substantial decarbonisation by 2030, in line with the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] targets,” says Bhatnagar, “and we’re aiming for a net-zero economy by early 2030s, and that’s because we have to do that and we don’t have a choice.”
“We need to invest in the economy,” he continues, “[and] we need to create a million new green jobs in renewable sectors.” This tallies with Labour's commitment to changing the economy to be greener as part of its Green New Deal. “Labour is the only party that wants to restructure the economy in a way that isn’t driven by profit but driven by human needs,” says Bhatnagar.
The Lib Dems’ Holmes sits somewhere in the middle. She explains that “the Liberal Democrats have a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2045, but a lot of our policies are actually putting forward climate reform with targets of 2030 or less than that.” This would include policies such as the inclusion of solar panels on all new builds by 2021.
On the subject of private education, Bhatnagar believes the system needs to change. “I don’t think that if you’re born into a rich family, you should be able to live your life in privilege and have your life sorted,” says Bhatnagar. “You shouldn’t be able to buy your way into elite universities or into a good career. We need to level the playing field.” Crucially, while Labour did vote to abolish private schools at their party conference, there is no mention of it in their manifesto. However, there is mention of increasing public spending on state schools, and a commitment to “close the tax loopholes enjoyed by elite private schools.”
“Private schools pump money into the economy, they pump money into teachers' pension schemes,” says Gawne. “Why attack private schools when you can work in harmony and try to unite them both?” The Conservatives make no mention of private schools in their manifesto.
On the subject of cuts to youth clubs and Sure Start, Gwane thinks that her party has underfunded these areas: “I think that is a shame.” The Conservatives do not have any specific targets on building new schools or to reopen Sure Start centres.
“I don’t think that we should abolish private schools at all,” says Holmes. “It might be suited to someone’s learning experience.” She explains how funding for schools has dropped substantially, and that the Lib Dems want to reverse that. This is a little contradictory, considering that her party leader, Jo Swinson, voted for austerity cuts during the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in 2015.
“When that happened, I was eight-years-old,” says Holmes, after Labour’s Bhatnagar reminds us that it was the Lib Dems who propped up a Conservative government for four years. “I’m here to promote our current policies.”
Bhatnagar points out that Swinson voted for more Conservative policies than most of her Lib Dem colleagues. “Can we trust her?”
Bhatnagar and Holmes do agree, however, that Conservative cuts to education have left most pupils worse off.