Yesterday (5 November), the British Youth Council presented their third Youth Select Committee Report on Votes at 16 to the House of Commons. A team of dedicated young people arrived from across the UK to present evidence to MPs that young people aged 16 and 17 can and should vote in elections. MPs representing all three major political parties attended and listened to the recommendations from the report, which included a strong emphasis on citizenship education, work to increase engagement and the suggestion that first-time voting should perhaps be compulsory.
As the report, called “Lowering the Voting Age to 16”, puts it:
Lowering the voting age to 16 would present a once-in-a-generation opportunity to connect young people with the democratic process. Investing now in the engagement of young voters and forming the habit of voting early in their lives could create a permanent change in our political culture. (p.33-34)
Welcomed across the board
All parties welcomed more youth engagement in politics. Liberal Democrat MP Tessa Munt said that she has been an active advocate of lowering the voting age and that the highlight of her political year is when 300 Members of the UK Youth Parliament, aged 11–18, debate in the House of Commons (next taking place on 14 November).
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats told the Youth Select Committee – chaired by Lord Tyler – that lowering the voting age will be in their manifestos. However, Conservative MP Tim Loughton raised his party’s concerns, arguing that the focus should not be on lowering the voting age but on concentrating efforts to improve the low voter turnout among the current cohort of 18-24 years olds.
The vice-chair of the Youth Select Committee, 17 year old Thea Smith, responded by saying that extending the vote to 16 can raise overall turnout. Young people are still in full-time education, which means they can be supported in registering en masse and are therefore far more likely to vote.
Thrinayani Ramakrishnan, 17, told the Intergenerational Foundation that research shows when someone votes once, they are more likely to vote again and again.
The report is a huge step forwards in the campaign to lower the voting age. With Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalist Party including the issue in their manifestos, the Conservative Party might be missing the party boat.
Lessons from Scotland
Lord Tyler supported the young people in being very clear how behind-the-times some MPs are on this issue, citing the 100,000 young people aged 16 and 17 who registered and voted in the Scottish referendum.
What happened in Scotland on 18 September has already shaken things up. Should a referendum on the EU take place, it would be tricky for any governing party not to include 16 and 17 year olds in helping make that decision. The reality we have is a newly united Britain where 100,000 young people aged 16 and 17 voted and the overall decision was to be “better together”. Could the Government dismiss the 100,000 already-registered young people in Scotland when it comes to voting in an EU referendum? Would the Welsh Assembly decide Welsh 16 and 17 year olds should vote in such a referendum? Where would that leave the young people of England and Northern Ireland?
Thankfully, there are many ministers backing the British Youth Council and the Votes at 16 campaign. As one Youth Select Committee member told a journalist last night, “It’s just a matter of time.”
Support from the Intergenerational Foundation
We at IF fully support the British Youth Council and the Youth Select Committee’s effort to lower the voting age to 16.
As I’ve argued before on this blog, “lowering the voting age could well be the missing colour from our political spectrum.” And while the papers splash out front-page news of a 16 year old’s name, face and details of his life imprisonment, I think we can give the hundreds of thousands of young citizens of this country – this United Kingdom – a fairer stake by handing them what is essentially due to them. I spoke with all of the Youth Select Committee panel members last night and the overarching theme and recurring words were: we want to be engaged in our civic duties as active citizens.
Voting is a fundamental right. And with personalities like Russell Brand engaging young people with his Trews series, urging all of us to give up on the democratic system as we have it today, and find our own ways to change the world, there is never a better time for ministers to re-engage with the young population.
Indeed, it may look to some as if politicians have disengaged with youth, not the other way around, through capping housing benefit for under 25s, raising university tuition fees to £9,000 per year, scrapping the Education Maintenance Allowance, and turning a blind eye to zero-hours contracts and unpaid internships, to high rents and escalating house prices that lock young people out of home ownership. All this at a time when politicians should be getting our youth on their feet.
Making decisions that impact so grossly on the younger and future generations, without their input or say, is far from any political system I want to proudly name democratic.