The time has come for a vital step in the renewal of Britain’s democracy. Time to let another one and a half million people take part in voting for the people who run the country. Giving the right to vote to sixteen and seventeen year olds now has widespread support across the political spectrum. British citizens aged sixteen can already vote in some elections and their counterparts can do so in some of the world’s largest democracies.
So the time is right for me to have my second attempt as an MP to lower the voting age. On Thursday 24th January I will be opening a debate in the House of Commons on a votable resolution to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in all UK elections and referenda. The last time I tried was over seven years ago in November 2005. On that occasion my Bill was defeated by just eight votes. This time I am optimistic that the majority of MPs now favour change.
So why do I believe in trusting people in their late mid teens with the vote? Has the case for change got better in the last seven years?
First, I have long believed that 16 year olds are mature enough to vote, if they want to. Years of experience of talking and listening to sixth form and college students has convinced me that enough of them have the knowledge about their communities and the wider world to make judgements on how they want the future to look. The curriculum itself and extra curricula activities have made the current generation of late teens the best informed and engaged in our history. Traditional lessons such as history or RE are now taught in a way that enables students to understand their place in society and to weigh up evidence and make judgements. More recent subjects such as PSHE and citizenship give young people more preparation for the world outside the classroom.
Participation in the UK Youth Parliament has grown and most schools now have their own councils with elected representatives. Frankly, I have met many older voters in their fifties and sixties who are remarkably ignorant about the world around them. We don’t suggest taking the vote off people who have no qualifications and stubbornly held but I’ll informed opinions. So we should not continue to withhold the vote from the best informed generation of young people.
Today’s young people also have easy access to a wide variety of viewpoints. I’ve been re-reading the debates in the Commons from 1968, when the process began of reducing the voting age from twenty one to eighteen. MPs then were worried about eighteen year olds being influenced by their parents or older siblings. Much the same arguments about immature minds being easy to influence were advanced a hundred years ago against giving votes to women or to poor working men. In 2013 young people don’t just have the benefit of a good education. They also live in the internet age, with news and information at their fingertips. Family and peer group influences will always play a part in how everyone votes but all of us now have access to countervailing views.
Many people have argued that the best reason for giving sixteen and seventeen year olds the vote is the long list of other rights and responsibilities they already enjoy. No taxation without representation has been around for a long time. It is indeed still true that 16 year olds can leave full time education, start work and pay taxes. The waters are becoming a little muddied here as the education participation age rises to 17 this year and to 18 in 2015. But this includes work based learning such as apprenticeships. Ironically (for this Lib Dem MP) the Coalition Government has already lifted young people on the minimum wage out of the income tax net. But they still pay NIC and spend their wages on VATable products. So the Jeffersonian vintage maxim still holds.
But once you’ve worked your way through the rest of the list – joining the army, driving a car, joining a union and full rights over medical treatment among them, I believe that the most compelling right is the age of consent for sex. What can be more fundamental than the potential to bring another human being into the world?
Personally, I do not believe that every “adult” right and responsibility should come at sixteen. I differ from several campaigners on that one. There are good health reasons for controlling access to alcohol and tobacco. I’m not persuaded of the case for allowing candidacy at 16. We have only recently lowered that right to 18 and I want to see how that works out.
Giving more young people the right to vote would also go some way to rebalancing the demographics of the franchise. I wrote recently about how politicians fear alienating the “grey vote”, which is becoming more significant as our society ages. Older people are also more likely to turn out, giving them even greater electoral firepower. Our democracy is in danger of becoming a gerontocracy as the will of the old trumps the needs of the young.
If Parliament had accepted my proposals in 2005 the UK would have set an example to the world. That’s no longer the case. One EU member state, Austria, has allowed sixteen year olds to vote since 2007. Most German states, Lander and cities allow 16 year olds to vote. The Burgermesiter of Hannover, Bristol’s twin city, has to appeal to 16 year olds as well as 46 year olds. Brazil, one of the world’s largest democracies, has long allowed sixteen year olds to vote. Neighbouring Argentina followed their example just two months ago.
But it’s here in the British Isles that the most relevant change has taken place. In 2006 the Isle of Man lowered the voting age. Jersey and Guernsey followed in 2007. The Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly want to give their sixteen year olds the vote but need Westmister approval. Most compelling of all is the recent agreement by the UK government to allow the Scottish Parliament the right to set the franchise for the referendum on Scotland’s future with the UK, in 2014.
So British citizens are already voting for their elected representatives in the Crown dependencies. Scots teens north of the border could hold the key to the future of the United Kingdom. The genie is now out of the bottle. It is time to trust all British sixteen year olds with the franchise. The time has come for votes at 16 and I hope enough of my fellow MPs will join me on Thursday to bring about this historic change.