David Cameron’s refusal to give the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds is facing a fresh test under a new plan to extend the franchise for council elections.
In what could be the first government defeat in the House of Lords this Parliament, Labour and Liberal Democrat peers are planning to table an amendment next month to give under-18s the right to choose their local councillors.
The town hall move is a dry run of the wider campaign to give more teenagers the vote in the EU referendum due by the end of 2017, The Huffington Post UK has learned.
The Lords look determined to dig in on the EU referendum bill and could derail the Government’s hopes of holding the poll as early as next autumn.
Giving the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds in the Scottish independence referendum proved a big success last year and Ed Miliband offered to extend similar rights for UK general elections in Labour’s last manifesto.
The party is now joining forces with the Liberal Democrats to give more teenagers a say in both local elections and the EU referendum.
Labour and the Lib Dems have a powerful blocking majority in the House of Lords, with their combined 314 peers outnumbering the 227 Conservatives.
A new amendment to the Cities and Local Government Bill, tabled by both Opposition parties, is scheduled to be heard next month.
Two Lib Dem peers, Lord Tyler and Lord Shipley, have signed the amendment with Labour’s frontbenchers Lord McKenzie and Lord Kennedy to update the 1983 Representation of the People’s Act to reduce the minimum voting age from 18 to 16.
The move had been planned for today but will now go ahead at the Report Stage of the bill, with campaigners confident that the Government will either have to offer concessions or face the first defeat of this Parliament.
But the bid to extend the franchise for council elections is a test case for the bigger battle over the EU referendum in the Lords.
If Labour and the Lib Dems refuse to buckle, David Cameron will have to use the Parliament Act to force through the EU referendum bill unamended.
With No.10 keen to keep open the option of an early referendum in the autumn of 2016, and with the EU bill unlikely to finish its Parliamentary stages until this December, any delay could cause serious timetabling headaches for the Government.
The smooth progress of the EU referendum bill has already been disrupted by Tory backbenchers determined to ensure that the vote is not 'rigged' by Whitehall and won't return to the Commons until the autumn.
Under the so-called Salisbury Convention, the House of Lords usually refuses to overturn any policy that has been in a governing party’s winning election manifesto.
However, the Tory manifesto policy on the EU referendum bill was silent on the age of those who could take part.
One Lords source said: “With votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, we would not be flouting the Salisbury Convention because we would be adding to the bill, not taking anything away. We would be improving the legislation.”
Conservatives would be furious at any serious delay to their flagship policy of David Cameron's second term, but critics believe he cannot 'flood the Lords' with new peers quickly enough to dilute the in-built Lib-Lab majority.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said earlier this month that the Government was ‘not persuaded’ of the need to lower the voting age on the In-Out plebiscite.
Mr Hammond added that Parliament would “be better expending our efforts trying to get a decent rate of turn-out among 18 to 24 year olds, before we start worrying about 16 and 17 year olds".
But Labour’s Chuka Umunna, Tory Sarah Wollaston and the SNP’s Alex Salmond said Mr Hammond’s arguments ranged from the ‘woeful’ to the ‘deeply insulting.’
Utterly pathetic and woeful reasons now being trotted out by the Foreign Secretary explaining why he won't give 16&17yr olds the EU ref vote— Chuka Umunna (@ChukaUmunna) June 9, 2015
“You can drive, have sex and join the army at 16, so why aren’t you allowed to vote?” one Labour source said today.
The Government has been reluctant to include under-18s in the EU referendum franchise amid fears that Tory Eurosceptics will see it as a move to boost the 'Yes' vote. Yet some campaigners say that it's far from clear how teenagers would vote.