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From the Chartist movement of the nineteenth century to the Scottish Referendum of 2014, voting practices in the United Kingdom have never remained static. It's unthinkable now that women could not vote in British general elections until 1918, and no less that women under 30 were not to be afforded this privilege until a decade later, finally bringing electoral law for both the sexes in line.
The debate over who should be allowed to vote in the 21st century now centres on 16- and 17-year-olds, who currently number 1.5 million in the UK. In the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, for the first time in British history under-18s were able to vote in a national election, and with astonishing results. Over 100,000 Scottish 16- and 17-year-olds, representing 90% of this age group, registered to vote, with a whopping 75% turning out on the day. In comparison, just over half of 18-24-year-olds made it to the ballot box on September 18th 2014.
Scotland has set a precedent that cannot be ignored. Research from the University of Edinburgh has shown that Scottish youth are now more politically informed than their young compatriots south of the border, and on June 18th this year Holyrood voted by overwhelming majority to lower the voting age permanently to 16 for all local and national elections. In doing so, our northern nation joins a movement that is slowly gaining pace across the globe, enabling young people to exercise their democratic rights as never before.
This is a development that campaign groups, trade unions and politicians from across the political spectrum have long been calling for. Stretching back 10 years, the campaign for Votes at 16 is a well-established one. Led by the British Youth Council, supporters have long extolled the virtues of permitting younger citizens to vote, and highlighted the glaring inconsistencies in our treatment of young members of society. The Labour Party has for many years highlighted the need for change, voting back in 2008 to support extension of the electorate to 16-year-olds. The time for government action on this is now overdue.
Sadly, on the same day that Scotland extended the hand of democracy to its younger citizens, the UK Parliament voted to withhold the same privilege from British youngsters further south, so depriving them of a vote in the upcoming referendum on the UK's membership of the EU. The Conservatives remain the only major party to reject the lowering of voting age, along with UKIP and members of unionist parties in Northern Ireland, but their vote was enough to swing the majority in favour of the status quo.
While the government stalls, 16- and 17-year-olds in the UK exist in what can only be described as political limbo. Though able to consent to sexual relationships, get married with parental permission and join the armed forces, they have no electoral influence on the policies that will directly affect their young adult lives. If in employment, under-18s are, like the rest of the UK, required to pay National Insurance and tax contributions and yet they are uniquely excluded from having a say in which politicians should decide how much they pay.
It is surely only fair that the opportunities, responsibilities and expectations of our young members of society are matched by the right to vote on the political make-up of our government, too - that their societal contribution and participation is rewarded with electoral inclusion. This is particularly so considering the fact that no group has been harder hit by Coalition and Conservative government policies since 2010. The young must be given the chance to shape the politics that will affect their lives for years to come, and not simply expected to passively bear the brunt of an austerity programme that they never called for or shoulder the burden of a financial crisis not of their making.
Moreover, lowering the voting age could go some way to tackle the growing endemic of political apathy among all age-groups in Britain, and particularly the young, which has led to the UK having arguably the worst record for the marginalisation of young people in the EU. The UK's young are facing a crisis of democratic participation: only half of the 7.4 million 16-24-year-olds in the UK are registered to vote, and less than half of this registered and electorally eligible group turned out to vote in this year's general election. And this is only set to get worse, with the government's introduction of Individual Voter Registration that has already led to the loss of one million names from the Voting Register in the past year. Changes to the way we register ourselves to vote saw levels of registration in the majority of university residences down from 100% to just 10%.
The fight for Votes at 16 is not over yet: the past year has seen a revived effort to tackle the growing swathes of young people at risk of being refused a vote in future national elections and referenda, and a final vote in the House of Lords is expected to return the question of Votes at 16 back to the Commons with a majority of peers supporting the measure, where the pressure will once again be on MPs to give their backing.
By extending the vote to this often left-behind age group, we let them know that their voices matter, that they can and do have a role in sowing the seeds of political change. Coupled with a strong curriculum of citizenship lessons in schools, votes for 16- and 17-year-olds has the potential to instil in them a lifetime of political engagement and participation.
Jude Kirton-Darling and Paul Brannen are Labour MEPs for the North East of EnglandSuggest a correction