Crucial day for Votes at 16 as Lords debate EU Referendum Bill

One of the best moments of the Scottish independence referendum last year for me was in the late afternoon on polling day. I was outside a polling station in Corstorphine watching streams of engaged 16 and 17 year olds, some of them still in school uniform, coming in to cast their votes. At the time, I thought how cruel it would be, after they had been such a positive part of the referendum, for them not to be allowed to vote on their UK Government 7 months later.

However, when it comes to the Scottish elections next May, my 16 year old will vote for the first time, for the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

I’ve always believed in votes at 16, but the case for voting in the referendum was stronger than ever. The country was making a decision that would affect it forever, not just five years. It’s exactly the same with the EU Referendum, yet the Conservative Government refuses to give these young people their say. The House of Lords could change those plans today. It goes without saying that the Liberal Democrat peers will be supporting votes at 16. The case to do so is compelling. Joanne Ferguson, who’s 17, is a Liberal Youth member who voted for the first time in the referendum. She’s written for the Common Weal site to explain what that vote meant and has led to for her:

The feeling of being valued and trusted by my government gave me confidence in my opinion and made me feel like it was my duty to take notice of the world around me. Some people say that 16 year olds shouldn’t vote because they have no interest. That value and that trust is what engages them.

I voted No in the referendum. I voted to stay in the UK. Then, when it got to the General Election, I was 17. I couldn’t vote for the government of a country I voted to stay part of.

Since I joined the Lib Dems in May, I’ve attended three conferences, two hustings, met Tim Farron five times, been out canvassing in the Glasgow region four times and Hamilton once, and been elected onto the Liberal Youth campaigns committee.

Okay, I’m more involved than the vast majority of teenagers, but I have done all this in six months. The idea that adults have more experience purely because of maths is based on the assumption of a uniform level of political engagement.

Intense political engagement ramps up your experience and you surpass a lot of the public very quickly, due to very low levels of knowledge and engagement in the public (which is not their fault. It’s our duty to engage them).

Throughout the day, we’ll be hearing from other young people on this issue. It’s a very real possibility that the Government will be defeated this evening. They’d then be faced with a bit of a dilemma. Do they accept the amendment and allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote, or will they be forced to delay the legislation for a year before bringing it back under the Parliament Act.

Tim Farron joined the party at 16. I joined the SDP on my 16th birthday. I don’t think that the three decades of “experience” under my belt since then has made me more qualified to cast that vote.

Dr Jan Eichorn from Edinburgh University conducted a study of 14-17 year olds in the run up to the referendum to assess their level of engagement and was able to dispel many of the theories about extending the franchise to them:

With this unique set of data we were able to engage with the claims made about young people. Many of them did not represent their actual attitudes and engagement. Their levels of general political interest were very similar to those of adults, their likelihood to vote increased substantially throughout the campaign to unprecedented levels and they mostly had talked to different people about the referendum and sought out information about it from multiple sources. They could hardly be described as politically apathetic, but they were substantially less likely to associate themselves with a political party than adults.

Crucially however, young people showed that they made up their minds in more complex ways than we often portray them as doing. Over 40% had a different voting intention than the parent we interviewed, for example. Even more crucially, while those who had talked to parents were more likely to vote in the referendum, they were no more or less likely to have greater self-perceived political confidence or understanding. Parents were not seen as a source of trustworthy political information and young people did not simply follow their views.

Let’s hope that the Lords allow young people a say in one of the most important decisions this country will ever make.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • “my 16 year old will vote for the first time, for the Scottish Liberal Democrats.” unless she and her mother have a big falling out the day before.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 18th Nov '15 - 9:44am

    That’s quite a patronising assumption , Bruce.

  • Richard Underhill 18th Nov '15 - 10:38am

    Caron Lindsay | Wed 18th November 2015 – 8:43 am Thanks for the myth buster.
    This is overdue by several decades. It is probably the only issue in Tim Clement-Jones’ white paper not implemented.
    All peers speaking in the debate should decalre whether they were ever a member of the National Teenage Party.

  • No not patronising just based on over 20years of lecturing and telephone conversations Me “Hello can I speak to Anne?” Mother “She’s at college today” Me “This is the college and she isn’t here” Next came the meeting where mother and daughter sat in my office using up the college stock of paper hankies.

    Having been through the teenage years and am now watching the next generation deal with my grandchildren and great nephews it is deja vu – again.

    However you might be lucky

  • In my day it was 21 before you can vote. Yet I started work at 15 paying NI and Tax. At 16 I flew solo in a RAF glider, I was flying in RAF planes and since it was the mid 1960s at 18 could have been in Vietnam had Wilson not stayed out of it.

    16 year olds have their own views they are more aware with social media and the continuous media stream. Many are far more aware than many older people.

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