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Guest blog: Why should older members hold all the votes? Is it time to extend voting to young people within Britain’s building societies?

A guest blog by Chris A'Court. Follow him on Twitter here.

Can you still recall the time of your first vote? How was that for you? Most likely there was anticipation, closely followed by real excitement. Then recognition of a memorable moment of personal empowerment - a point when you really started making a difference.

Chances are that your first vote was cast at twenty-one, or eighteen, or just possibly it came as early as sixteen or seventeen. There is now quite a buzz about a possible lowering of voting age right across the UK. But what I would like to see is people with an interest in the mutual financial sector to start asking, ‘When and how can young people expect to get votes within our building societies?’

Young people in Scotland have been able to vote from the age of sixteen since 2014, in referenda and some political elections, and it looks as though young people in Wales will soon be going onto voting registers at that age too. They will join other young people with voting rights in countries that include Austria, Brazil and Malta, which earlier this year gave them the right to vote in all elections, including general elections and those for the European Parliament.

Voting-booth.jpgAn All Party Parliament Group has been formed to produce a report to investigate the possibility of young people voting in elections everywhere in the UK and there is a push for change from the Votes at 16 Coalition. Meanwhile the minimum age for building society voting is eighteen - just as it has been for almost half a century. But with the reforms elsewhere and with young people seemingly more prepared to engage with important issues than ever before I believe it now looks wrong to deny responsible sixteen and seventeen year olds a vote within our societies.

In fact those societies seem increasingly as though they are the perfect starting places for change. There seems a strong argument for young members to be allowed the same voting rights now as the millions of older adults who already qualify within our 44 building societies. They would help elect directors and approve or reject society performance and pay. Just like everyone else they would be invited and empowered to vote each year - in the Annual General Meeting.

Right at the heart of this call for societies to change is a consideration of their history and heritage. When they were first formed in the mid-nineteenth century building societies were actually very much about extending voting.  When those founding societies successfully encouraged people to band together to fund, build and own their homes it was not just about helping more people to put a roof over their heads - becoming a property owner was also a key to being granted a vote to elect MPs. Those early building societies were among the most progressive of organisations, taking a a lead in changing democracy in a way that was fair and right. Today’s societies now have a chance to take such a lead once again.

But why extend voting rights to younger members? Well for a start both children and young people are increasingly valuable to the societies’ balance sheets and surely also deserve some proper rewards that grow alongside their commitment.  By the time they reach sixteen many young people will have contributed savings over many years or even managed their cashcard current account for up to five years. Involvement and responsibility really does come much earlier now and - supporters will say - makes younger people more ready to vote.

And there appears to be reasonable evidence to suggest that young people would actually use their vote too. The Scottish experience of extending voting age downwards is seen as a success - some research shows that 75% of the young people who got the vote there in 2014 did take part in the poll.  At the same time some gave feedback saying it would also make them more likely to vote in elections for the rest of their lives. That point should not go unnoticed at building societies with their understandable need for ongoing member engagement and support.

shutterstock_138869051.jpgExisting members with a right to vote may well ask if there are really enough young people to warrant the effort of initiating moves towards voting reform.  Exact numbers are unclear but it is said that there are currently 1.5 million young people aged either sixteen or seventeen and so it is reasonable to suppose there could be several hundred thousand young building society members who would qualify to be included.  Of course, at this age, they will all be savers and not borrowers. This does mean the overall balance of the voting register would tip slightly more towards savers, but since they already massively outnumber borrowers at all societies that does not seem a strong argument for holding up such change.

I know that I am not alone in asking for change. I have already heard from other people, including some staff from within the societies, who say they agree that votes for young people should become a reality and that they would like it to happen quickly. And, in the year when we mark the suffragette centenary, this seems a perfect point for such modern reform. But unfortunately there is a barrier to overcome in the form of some fundamental - and arguably outdated - rules.

The initial response when I approached societies earlier this year, even the ones in Scotland and Wales where you would expect pressure for the change to lower voting age to come first, was that they would not, or could not, change anything until the government reviewed the Family Law Reform Act (1969) in England and Wales and the Age of Majority Act in Scotland.  These say that any person under the age of eighteen is officially classes as a ‘minor’.  Crucially, the Building Societies Act - the framework under which all our societies work - says that anyone who is a minor does not have a right to vote in any building society election. That is a distinct road block.

But a possible solution does exist. If the Building Societies Act could be unlinked from the other Acts and amended that would give societies the power to set their own rule on voting age and, if they choose to, they could adjust it down to sixteen.  Amending the Act has been done before, as recently as 2014 when societies pushed to be allowed to raise capital in a new way. MPs would still need to approve the amend but that is a much smaller ask than requesting full reform of those two other major Acts.

The place where the serious talking can begin is at the Building Societies Council, the gathering of chief executives from all our biggest societies. How good it would be if extending voting rights to young people was to be on its next agenda and a clear course of action could be agreed.

Exactly when young people might experience the excitement that would come with voting change still remains difficult to predict, but it seems reasonable to hope that those who are just entering their teenage years might also be the first to exercise their voting rights at sixteen. This is based on the expected time scales to complete all the processes, including a society members’ vote of approval for younger voting that would be needed at each society.

When I worked within the sector, often meeting and talking with members at engagement events, including AGMs, I was struck by how often they spoke about children’s savings and young people. They acknowledged how crucial they were to their building society’s future. The strong calls by older members to do more for children’s savings brought about real change, better rates and products, including the introduction of the Children’s ISA and the continuing commitment that the major societies give to keeping its interest rate high. In the case of reform for votes at 16, it is older members who could again hold the key. Voicing their support at AGMs and lobbying directors could really help drive society boards into action. 

Building societies can prove that the votes of their young members really do matter too.

Who will stand up for a new age of change?

Posted by Chris A'Court on 23 July 2018