Ed Miliband has pledged to give 16 and 17-year-olds the chance to vote in UK elections from as early as 2016 under a Labour government. Speaking on Monday, the Opposition leader promised to pass legislation to extend the franchise to 1.5 million more teenagers in the first session of the next parliament.
The Labour chief said schools and colleges would be required to help reverse a slump in the numbers of young people registered to vote. Miliband set out the timetable as he became the latest politician to face questions from a young audience at a Leaders Live event - organised by voter engagement group Bite the Ballot and streamed by YouTube and ITV News. During and after the show, the hashtag #YesEd was trending high on Twitter.
Pressure to lower the voting age across the UK has become stronger after 16 and 17-year-olds were allowed to take part in the Scottish independence referendum. Electoral law is one area due to be devolved to the Scottish Government as part of an extended devolution deal and Miliband urged the UK Government to grant the freedom for it to be changed north of the border in time for the 2016 elections to the Scottish Parliament.
There are also elections due to the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies and Labour said it would work with both to make the change. Other elections in May 2016 include those for the London Mayor and Assembly and in many local authorities.
Miliband said: "Britain will only succeed as a country if we give our young people the chance to fulfil their potential and play their part. And when decisions are being taken which affect their future, a democratic country like ours should ensure that they have their voice heard. Too many young people are turning their backs on politics which is bad for our country and bad for them too.
"That's because too often young people don't get a look-in with politicians who know they can't vote - or assume that they won't vote. The measures we will introduce in our first year of government represent the greatest extension of the franchise in my lifetime."
Miliband said he wanted to see the wide implementation of the schools initiative which has successfully increased the numbers of young people registered to vote by getting institutions to submit details of year groups as a block. First-time voters, students and those leaving home are among groups who appeared to have stopped signing up for a vote since the rules were changed to require each individual to be registered individually rather than as part of a household.
Up to a million could be missing out eventually if the decline was not halted, Labour said, with tens of thousands disappearing from registers in some large cities. "It is not enough just to give young people the right to vote," Miliband said. "We must do everything we can to ensure they have the chance to exercise it. With more and more young people heading off to study or moving home, it is vital that new rules on electoral registration do not deter them getting the chance to vote."
Miliband was grilled on a range of topics, from drugs and immigration policy to his favourite type of cheese, during the Leaders Live event. The Labour leader acknowledged there was "real anxiety" about immigration that was "not based on prejudice".
But he added: "When Nigel Farage said that thing about 'I don't want to live next door to a Romanian', I think that was wrong, he shouldn't have said that. When people in Ukip have said terrible remarks about Lenny Henry, saying Lenny Henry should go back to Africa, that's disgusting and outrageous.
"I think we have to call out racist sentiment when it's there and it's absolutely right that we do that. But I don't think it's right to associate everybody who has got a concern about immigration, or even the vast majority, with those tendencies. I don't think they are the same tendencies."
When he appeared on Leaders Live Farage was quizzed about a previous interview when he indicated it would make him anxious if a group of Romanian men moved next door. "I think the answer is you would be concerned if a group of men from any nationality moved in next door to you," he said.
Responding to gasps of "what?" from the audience, the Ukip leader replied: "If 10 blokes move in next door you'd think that was perfectly normal, would you?" Miliband suggested Labour was considering a time limit on unpaid internships to stop the exploitation of staff and to open up opportunities.
"Short work experience is one thing - very short - but permanent unpaid internships, a long unpaid internship, is more problematic," he said. He added: "Should we go further? Should we say you have got to have some time limits on the length of unpaid internships or work experience?
"That would be a big step, but I think we have got to look at it. But I think it is an injustice and an unfairness at the moment." Miliband said he wanted a debate about the practice because "in lots of industries the only way you get your foot on the ladder is by being an unpaid intern".
The Labour leader restated his opposition to the proposed pay rise for MPs next year recommended by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. "I'm not going to be part of a government that gives a big pay rise to MPs when we are still having tough times for nurses, teachers, lots of public and private sector workers - I don't think that's on," he said.
"I can't imagine allowing it to happen - and we are going to have to find a way of stopping it - to allow MPs to get a 9% pay rise while other people are suffering." But he the suggestion that the salaries paid to MPs should be lowered: "I'm not in favour of cutting MPs' pay."
Miliband repeated his denial that he had ever taken drugs, although he admitted: "I'm not teetotal." He added: "I'm not in favour of decriminalisation, for example of cannabis, because from my reading of it - and I have read about it and I think the debate has changed a bit on this in the last 10 years - I think there are mental health effects of cannabis which many people didn't recognise a decade ago."