Last week, MPs voted in favour of a back-bench motion to reduce the age at which people can first vote in elections from 18 to 16 years old. It was a non-binding vote and not a bill so the law has not changed. Yet. Nearly all of the back-benchers who spoke were in favour of the motion. However, the Conservative Party are against the change so there will, almost certainly, not be a bill in this parliament to lower the voting age.
Since 1832 the franchise has been widened many times. Women, non-landowners, under 21s and other groups can now vote. These changes were opposed at the time by the same sort of people who oppose the change to 16. They used the same arguments too. They said that women couldn’t think seriously enough, that non-landowners would influence government policy to benefit themselves, and that under-21s were not mature enough to be trusted.
The reality is, of course, that 16- and 17-year olds can think more seriously about current affairs than many people much older than them. Government policy affects young people as much as any other group, so they deserve the right to vote on it too. As regards maturity, I know many older adults who are far less mature than an average 16-year old. Indeed, the older some people get the less sensible their political views become e.g. Ian Hislop.
There are two main arguments in favour of lowering the voting age:
1. It would be good for democracy. In countries where the voting age has been lowered, e.g. Austria, the turnout has increased. Low turnout is a problem in Britain. Many people never vote and their interests suffer because of it. Look at the way the government will cut benefits for the poor but won’t touch pensioners’ benefits and perks. This is because pensioners are more likely to vote. If young people voted more then politicians would be obliged to keep promises on policies like tuition fees.
Also, if 16-year olds get the chance to vote while still at school they will be much more likely to continue voting in later life. If young people get to see how easy it is to vote and how to weigh up various parties’ policies, they will not be afraid of doing it once they leave school.
2. It would be good for young people. The later teenage years are a transition from childhood to adulthood. At this age people are making important decisions about their lives. Taking responsibility for themselves and others is a process that is difficult for some, so we should show that we trust them to make a decision as part of our society. This would involve young people, rather than exclude them. If people feel part of society and have a stake in it, they will be more responsible members of the community. If we trust young people to vote, we can be confident they will be worthy of it.
Your Country Needs You
Society needs as many people, from as many different groups, as possible to participate in setting the direction of the country, the county, the borough and the parish. Many other countries have already lowered the voting age: Austria, Brazil, Argentina and Germany. Even in these isles under-18s can vote in certain polls: Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey and Scotland for the independence referendum.
Teenagers are just as politically and ideologically aware and active as any other age group. At that age I was involved with CND, Anti-Apartheid, Greenpeace, and the Labour Party. It doesn’t cost much, if anything. The Labour Party only charges £1 pa for this age group for membership, or you can sign up online to be a registered supporter for free. Lowering the voting age to 16 was in the last Labour manifesto. If you want to help decide what will be in the next one then get involved!
Personally, I would like to see future generations of ideological young people. Engaging them in the democratic process while they are still at school and trusting them to make decisions will help to achieve this.