Opinion: Votes at 16

Labour’s Julie Morgan MP had a brave attempt to introduce a Private Members Bill to lower the voting age to 16 talked out by Conservative MPs on Friday. Her Bill was a cross party effort backed by Jo Swinson among others. Regrettably, there were not enough supportive MPs present to force a closure vote (100 are needed) and this is partly down to the lack of Liberal Democrats in Parliament that day.

I was one of those who set up the Votes at 16 Campaign back in 2002, bringing together a wide range of supportive groups including the UK Youth Parliament, British Youth Council, Barnardos and YMCA. There are a total of more than 30 different groups and many thousands of individual supporters who back the campaign.

From the start, we faced quite a mountain of opposition. Much of it was genuinely focussed on the issue, but there was also a fair amount that was based on irrational prejudice and most of this comes from the Conservatives.

It is fair enough to ask whether young people at 16 are ready to vote and whether those that choose to exercise such a right are capable of doing so with the minimum of reliance on celebrity endorsement and pressure from family members. I would argue that the majority are fully capable – much more capable than 18 year olds were just a few years ago. A compulsory part of the national curriculum in all parts of the UK is now citizenship education (although it is delivered with varying quality). So young people are encouraged to debate issues that matter to them with their peers. They are also meant to understand what each of the parties stands for and how elections work. I would argue that there is no better time to engage them than immediately after this compulsory learning ends.

There is also a concern that most young people do not vote and lowering the voting age will simply lower the turnout further.

Of course it is true that fewer people vote at the lower end of the age spectrum. But I think that this is both a false argument and unlikely to be replicated if the voting age were lowered to 16. It is false because a reliance on percentage turnout should not be the be all and end all. Lowering the voting age will get more people engaged in our democracy and that can only be a good thing. It is better that those who do not care one way or the other don’t vote at all than vote blindly. If we engage young people at 16 then they are likely to retain the voting habit. If we ignore them when they first want to get involved then it is quite likely that they will become disenchanted and never vote at all.

The 18-23 age bracket is about the most mobile section of the population that there is. At this age, people go away to university, they leave home and tend to move between a succession of temporary addresses. Many are never registered to vote and millions more no longer live at their registered address come polling day. It is not surprising that many cannot or do not vote. Whereas the 16-18 age group is about the most stable cohort. They are at home studying at school or college. Register them and you will find that the vast majority are still living at the same address when it comes to the election.

So why 16 and why not 12? Well, 16 is the age that the majority of young people themselves (when questioned on behalf of the British Youth Council) felt was right. It is the age at which compulsory citizenship education ends and, even if the education leaving age is raised, is the end of compulsory secondary style schooling. It is the age at which you gain a huge number of extra rights including the right to have a full time job (including a job in the armed forces), to marry and legally have sex. To the vast majority of 16 year olds that we talked to, this is the age at which they feel that society regards them as adults.

During the debate on Friday, Eleanor Laing suggested that if 16 year olds wanted more rights then they ought to be prepared to take on more responsibilities. Absolutely! At 16, a person can have a job as a mechanic fixing the brakes on your car, a chef preparing and correctly cooking the food you eat and a care worker looking after frail and vulnerable people. Are these people not considered responsible enough to cast a vote in an election?

Finally, there was the canard raised about young people being too reliant on celebrities to make up their own mind. We polled young people asking whose opinions and views they would listen to before they went to the polling station. Whilst a few said they would listen to their friends and their family, there were none who said they would vote for a party on the basis of a celebrity endorsement. But there was one group of people who young people said they would listen to before they even considered voting. That group? The politicians themselves. Young people might feel that they are currently under-informed, but they were certain that they wanted to know where the candidates stood on the issues that mattered to them before they voted.

During my time heading the Votes at 16 campaign, we succeeded in taking a private members bill through the House of Lords, of securing the support of the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament as well as the unanimous backing of a Commons Select Committee (including two Tory MPs). In a consultation run by the Electoral Commission, two out of three young people who responded backed a lower voting age. Of course there is not unanimous support, but the whole point of the change is that 16 and 17 year olds are capable of making up their own minds on political issues and coming to different conclusions.

I am very sorry that Julie Morgan’s Bill got talked out by the Tories but voting age change will come.

Alex Folkes is co-founder and former Director of the Votes at 16 Campaign. He is Vice Chair of North Cornwall Liberal Democrats.

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8 Comments

  • Aren’t we all arguing at crossed purposes?

    Laurence is amusing because he points to an interesting principle about the different levels of representation which reflect everybody’s individual abilities, activities and interests, but he is funny because that suggestion is laughable.

    Votes at 16? Well, maybe, but it has to be tied into wider electoral reforms that see the constition of the House of Lords changed. So I think I’d support it on the grounds that it is a good step in that direction.

    In principle, however, I’m for abolishing artificial restrictions, so I think I’d tend towards opposing this proposal on the grounds (although well-intentioned) it doesn’t go far enough.

  • David Evans 8th Oct '08 - 2:28pm

    Alex,

    I’m fairly ambivolent about voting at 16, but when you trot out a comment like “It is fair enough to ask whether young people at 16 are ready to vote … I would argue that the majority are fully capable – much more capable than 18 year olds were just a few years ago.”

    It strikes me you ar being more than a bit ageist – Do you have any evidence, or if not what arguements would you forward to support your contention? I fear it may be just an instinctive “the kids are alright” position on your part, but if you have any particular points that support your contention, I would be very interested.

    David

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