“Politics has probably never been held in worse esteem or more contempt in your lifetime, probably in my lifetime too”. A bold statement by the host for the day – Krishnan Guru Murthy – to kick off this year’s edition of Young Peoples Question Time, but it is one that seems to resonate with the audience. The task therefore falls to the panellists to convince them otherwise, and to try and restore some trust; they are Diane Abbott MP (Labour), Dr. Kwasi Kwarteng MP (Conservative), Steven Woolfe MEP (UKIP) and Baroness Jenny Jones (Green).
Just as the first question of the day is asked, relating to policies outside of immigration, we’re treated to a rare glimpse of democracy in action – the bell sounds, meaning that Mrs Abbott and Mr Kwarteng have to leave us for a short time to vote on the latest piece of legislation to pass through the House. This leaves Mr Woolfe with a chance to lay out his party’s policies relatively unchallenged, an opportunity he seizes with both hands. Referring to education he outlines plans to scrap tuition fees for British citizens, to oversee the creation of more grammar schools and to promote technical colleges on the same level as universities. On the subject of Health he states that the NHS should remain free at the point of care but again only to British citizens; benefit tourism, as far as UKIP are concerned, needs to end. Baroness Jones quite predictably refutes UKIP’s policies from the off; she claims immigration is a good thing for the country as a whole, and whilst she agrees that tuition fees should be scrapped it should not be in such a discriminatory way as advocated by Mr Woolfe.
‘Elephant in the Room’
As the debate goes on and the questions continue to pour in it soon becomes clear that Mr Woolfe, to both the panel and the audience, is somewhat of an elephant in the room. However not in the traditional sense that no one wants to talk about him; the UKIP representative is quickly becoming the main attraction. Asked about his U.S. style medical insurance proposal for immigrants he sticks rigidly to his guns – there is simply not enough funding to allow for benefit tourism. It is at this point that Mrs Abbott, returning after submitting her vote, challenges him. Without immigrants such as her mother who came from abroad and worked as a nurse until she retired, we wouldn’t have an NHS. Furthermore such an insurance system is opposed by medical professionals says the Labour MP, as they don’t want people to be scared of going to the doctors. What if someone has an infectious disease but no insurance? It is here that Mr Kwarteng makes his first contribution. While he does not agree with UKIP’s NHS policies he does recognise the growing funding crisis developing and that given our aging population we need to have a serious debate about how to address this. Baroness Jones is quick to make the point that if big businesses were to pay their taxes, this would not be as much of an issue.
To ensure this young audience are left in no doubt as to what each party stands for, the panellists go on to toe their party line for much of the debate. Baroness Jones emphasises her party’s focus on the environment; we as a nation are too wasteful, too damaging, and it would be wrong to encourage developing countries to emulate our success on these grounds. Mr Woolfe, rather predictably, drives home the reasons his party is so desperate to leave the EU; immigration needs to be curbed as a matter of urgency; the EU places huge tariffs on trading with less developed countries, which therefore hampers their development; we have too many problems at home that need to be addressed before we start worrying about elsewhere, and EU money could and should go towards that. Mrs Abbott, again rather predictably, emphasises the current government’s failings, with the age old criticism of the Conservatives prioritising the wealthy, a point raised not just by her but also Baroness Jones. Mr Kwarteng talks about his government’s policies, choosing not to criticise the other parties but instead draw attention to the coalition’s successes; such an approach should be expected from an MP whose party is currently in government.
It is only in the last half an hour of the event that perhaps the most relevant of issues (given the nature Parliament Week) is raised; that of whether or not the voting age should be lowered to 16 for national elections. It proves quite a divisive point:
Diane Abbott MP – “Yes I am (pro 16 year old). I was a little thinking ‘will they actually come out and vote’…but what the Scottish referendum showed is that young people will come out and vote if there is something to vote for. I think that the independence referendum….has conclusively made the case for votes at 16”
Baroness Jenny Jones – “Green party policy for a long time has been reducing the voting age to 16. It seems ludicrous that we don’t get people involved at a time not only when they are in school…but also living in a community where they have links to someone and where they can actually see what politics means to them on the ground. I think a voting age of 16 is something…all parties should have in their manifesto, particularly after the Scottish referendum”
Dr. Kwasi Kwarteng MP – “I’m going to say something that’s really unpopular. I don’t think 16 year olds should be able to vote. Largely because of the age of majority, the age at which you’re an adult, and it makes sense to link that to the age at which you’re able to vote. Having a debate about whether the age of majority should be at 16 is a separate debate. There are some 16 year olds that are more mature than 20 year olds; I dare say there are some 16 year olds that are more mature than 39 year olds like myself…but you have got to draw a line. Voting is an expression of being a part of an adult community”
Steven Woolfe MEP – “This is, again, where I’m going to make myself unpopular tonight, and not for the first time, as I am in agreement with Kwasi here. I think in Scotland we did learn some lessons. I think we saw an awful lot of passion. I think we saw an awful lot of interest. But it was about a very interesting and specific point…and it really engaged people. Actually a lot of people say now they’re turned off by politics. I do think that the age of majority is important as people do mature at very different levels and that is why the government has come to the position that they have 18 as that level”
It is at this point, once again, that the bell sounds, relieving us of Mr Kwarteng and Mrs Abbott. The debate continues however, with a member of the audience raising the point that surely before we consider lowering the voting age we must first look at educating young people about politics, to encourage more of an interest and to inform them about what they will be voting for. I feel this is a key point in this debate.
Mr Kwarteng and Mrs Abbott return for the last few minutes, and it winds down with more debate and questions from the audience. By the time the event reaches its conclusion, one could be forgiven for being slightly more optimistic about the future of youth involvement, and interest, in politics. Granted those in attendance already had an interest in politics, but if we can encourage this level of engagement from young people across the country, through the issues that matter to them and with the continued involvement of people like those on today’s panel, we can help 2014 Parliament Week go some way to realising its goals.