Young people are refusing to be ignored – the recent school climate strikes and campaigning on Brexit have shown that. But while they can protest outside Parliament all they want, there’s a brutal fact: they won’t be properly listened to until they have a vote.
On Wednesday, buried beneath the clamour of the Brexit talks, MPs demanded just this – that it’s time to extend the franchise.
MPs from both sides of the chamber say the time is right to make this change. There is no age limit to participation, as the SNP’s Mhairi Black, the youngest MP, has made clear. It came as no surprise that some of the strongest support comes from those representing constituencies in Scotland, where the franchise has already been extended for local, and Scottish parliament elections. As Labour’s Cat Smith noted, Scotland has already proven the case for giving young citizens the vote.
When they vote, 16- and 17-year olds actually have higher rates of turnout in Scotland than 18-24-year olds. In the 2014 Scottish independence referendum turnout among 16-18-year-olds was 75%, with 97% of those who voted saying they would vote in future elections.
Evidence has shown that they accessed more information ahead of the vote from a wider variety of sources than any other age group – showing that 16-year-olds are more than ready to engage in the democratic process in an enthusiastic and informed way.
The rest of the UK is taking note. In Wales now, a bill to extend voting in Welsh Assembly and local elections is currently making its way through the Senedd.
All the evidence shows that if you vote in your first election, you’ll carry on voting for life. This is what we all want as democrats – to keep that momentum going and inspire a generation of active citizens. Extending the right to vote would allow that seamless transition from learning about voting to putting it into practice.
And at a time when politics is more divided than ever, it’s testament to the strength of the arguments that support for votes at 16 comes from across the political spectrum.
To mark its first anniversary, the All Party Parliamentary Group for Votes at 16 published a new campaign report drawing together evidence gathered by the all-party group throughout its first year. It features contributions from parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, academics, youth organisations, campaigners and think tanks. Last year the ERS showed the levels of support on Conservative benches, with strong arguments for expanding the ‘civic duty’ of voting from Nicky Morgan MP, Sir Peter Bottomley MP, young people and more.
As Wednesday’s debate showed too, votes at 16 is not an issue of party advantage. It’s about how we view our democracy and the role of young people within it.
But it’s true, there’s a lot to be gained by whichever party embraces a fairer franchise. 16/17 year olds in England won’t tolerate for much longer at situation where their Scottish and Welsh friends can vote, but not them. It is an unjustifiable divide – and votes at 16 is not a question of when, not it.
It’s time for the government to show leadership in embracing a ‘united franchise’ for the next election – or the democratic disparities between nations will grow even larger.
With the potential for a general election growing by the day, the time for extending the civic duty of voting is now. The Prime Minister should seize this opportunity to show leadership create a truly united franchise for the UK.