After the Scottish referendum which saw a huge number of young people taking to the polls, having been given their democratic right to vote for the first time, how can David Cameron go on ignoring 16 and 17-year-olds who are desperate to let their voice be heard?
Politicians are forever moaning that young people are not interested in politics and that they do not engage or, indeed, vote. Well that argument holds no sway anymore. The referendum in Scotland proved that when young people are given the right and when they care about the issue at stake, then they do vote! Although we do not yet know exactly how many 16 and 17-year-olds cast their vote, we do know that huge numbers registered to do so (109,533 - approximately 90% of the age group).
Now the calls for 16 year-olds to be given the vote is becoming a clamour, with Ed Miliband announcing at his party's conference that he would also lower the voting age if elected. And for good reason! At the European Youth Forum, of which British Youth Council is a member, we have been calling for the voting age to be lowered to 16 across Europe for some time. Of course, as the platform representing young people and advocating for their rights in Europe, you might say, "you would say that!". But we do base this demand on several key factors. Firstly we know through surveys - as well as our members - that young people are politically active and knowledgeable and that they do support democracy and the democratic processes, but have new ways of engaging. However, the current political system does not keep up with their expectations for dialogue, therefore, there are not sufficient ways for young people to participate. We have 21st Century young citizens and a 20th century political system! Voting at 16 is just one of a raft of measures that are needed to make sure that young people can truly participate in democratic life.
The other arguments for lower the voting age come down mostly to common sense: in most European countries, young people can work and, therefore, are subject to taxes - so why should they not have a say in electing those politicians and governments that will decide how those taxes are spent? They are deemed to be grown up enough to have sex (and children), get married, sign up to the army and yet we do not afford them the basic right to choose their leaders. This is crazy!
Then, there are the more - you might say - academic arguments to allow the vote to this age group. Studies have shown that when young people are engaged earlier in democratic and civil life by voting, they are more engaged for the rest of their lives. We are not saying that 16 year-olds should be thrown in at the next general election with no prior knowledge of the system and how it works though and that is why we advocate for citizenship education in all schools, so that young voters would be in position of knowledge when they cast their votes.
The naysayers are ready to argue that Mr. Salmond only gave 16 year-olds the vote because he thought they would be filled with "Braveheart" fervor and vote yes. Exactly how they voted remains to be seen (despite Lord Ashcroft's - well, not exactly scientific - poll of 14-16-17 year-olds, as reported in the Guardian, showing that 71% of this age group voted yes). But surely voting on independence in a legitimate referendum is certainly no crime either way.
Though, some have said young people are more likely to be influenced by extremist populism. On that, we did a little bit of polling ourselves of this age group, focusing on the European elections. Just a few weeks before the elections in May we asked 570 young people how they would vote, if they had the chance to do so and the results were very revealing. They showed that, rather than - as many people argue they would - voting for extreme parties, if young people alone chose the future MEPs, the European Parliament would largely have a similar make-up to the one before.
Putting aside, however, the concerns of those that insist on the status quo the key fact is this: there are over 1.5 million young people in the UK, passionate about their communities and society and just as capable of making decisions about this society as any other UK citizen. It is time that David Cameron follows Scotland's example and allows 16 and 17 year olds their democratic right to decide on the future of their country in next year's general election.