A Right to Education, and a Right to Vote

by Alex Lockwood

University of Sunderland’s Alex Lockwood argues that lowering the voting age could be a central policy for the new left agenda.

First published: 30 November, 2010 | Category: Activism, Politics

How about this as a statement of support and inspiration for those students leading the fight-back against the Coalition’s cuts to higher education?

The issue is the greatest of modern times. On its decision depends nothing less than the character of the whole progressive movement in England. Under our eyes, the young democracy is taking shape; it is stating its problems and formulating its answers to them. Questions of education, unemployment, housing, land, poverty and finance, little regarded by the last generation, form the subject matter of its politics in the present, and will do so more in the immediate future.

These are not, however, the words of Noam Chomsky’s recent support for the occupation by Newcastle University students. Neither are they—although they are incredibly close—to the rallying cry found in Ed Howker and Shiv Malik’s essential 2010 read, The Jilted Generation.
These words were in fact written exactly 100 years ago, published in 1910 by the radical journalist Brougham Villiers, in support for those leading the campaign for the votes for women – otherwise known as the Suffragists.

Can the Suffragist movement offer anything relevant to today’s resistance against the Coalition’s cuts—specifically, to higher education?

I believe so.

The Suffragettes were and perhaps still are best known for their militancy. It is this aspect of the Suffragist movement that was has been adopted by Climate Rush, who act under the banner of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s words “Well behaved women seldom make history” to carry out direct action in halting policies and behaviours that feed climate change.

Today’s direct action from students opposed to the cuts is welcome. Yet as the feminist historian Sandra Holton first argued nearly 25 years now, it was not, ultimately, the militancy of the Suffragettes that brought about social change and votes for women. Neither was it the constitutionalist body of organisations within the suffrage movement that lobbied parliament.

It was instead the Democratic Suffragists, a term coined by Margaret Llewelyn Davies, whose strategic position to align the suffragist cause and the subordination of women with other structures of social inequality that was pivotal in securing the vote for women. It was through building bridges and alliances between working-class and middle-class, and ensuring sex/gender and class arguments for equality did not overpower and cancel each other out, that the Suffragists achieved their goal.

There is, I believe, great benefit to be had in linking the student protests with the broader social inequality suffered by those who are affected by the cuts, but don’t even have the right to a democratic protest at the ballot box. That is: if 16- and 17- year olds – even 14- and 15- year olds, who are mature enough to select their GCSEs and influence their future higher education and career lives—were able to vote now, would the Coalition be so brave as to steal their right to a fair and free education? They are the least fortunate, perhaps, of all people affected by the Coalition cuts.

Like today’s protesting students, the Suffragists did not just want to enter a political sphere they felt was closed to them, but redefine that sphere. The issue of the right to vote and political emancipation is a critical, but I believe under-represented, aspect of today’s opposition, considering nearly a million 16- and 17- year olds are directly affected by the removal of the EMA and their future HE funding.

There is one further factor that resonates down the centuries. As Sandra Holton argues, the other key factor in the success of the Suffragist movement—one that resonates as Ed Miliband launches his two year review of party policy—was that the Democratic-Suffragist leadership, particularly in the Women’s Cooperative Guild, “were able to forge an alliance with the new force in radical politics in this period, the Labour Party” (Holton 1986: 7).

Can the Labour Party be radical enough to think beyond student funding and to fully give those affected by these cuts the right to vote? In 2008, MP Julie Morgan’s Voting Age (Reduction) Bill - a Private Members’ Bill - was brought before the House of Commons. But the Bill did not become law and the question of whether 16-17 year olds should be granted the right to vote continues to be discussed.

It was on the agenda earlier this year, when the Think Tank Demos released their report arguing for exactly this. Their report debunked the idea that 16-and 17-year olds were too immature or not bothered enough to vote—85% said they would be either ‘absolutely certain’ or ‘more likely to vote than not’.

But perhaps now is the time to bring that discussion back to the fore as a core strategic discussion. For those opposing the cuts to Higher Education, this could be the broader strategic goal that carries the day. And for the Labour Party, it could mean the renewal of a political relationship with young people that will carry it back into power.

Holton, S. S. (1986) Feminism and Democracy: Women’s Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain, 1900-1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Alex Lockwood is Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Sunderland.


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