What do getting married, joining the armed forces, leaving school, paying income tax, and giving full consent to medical treatment have in common? The answer is that, legally, you can do them all at the age of 16 in the UK. But sadly the same can’t be said of voting and having a say in who represents you. The Government is now pulling out all the stops to try and stop 16 and 17 year olds from even being able to vote in the EU referendum, a once in a generation opportunity to have their say on a decision that will impact them for decades to come.
While the Labour Party, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party all support lowering the voting age to 16, the Tories remain opposed. This is unsurprising - the Government’s policies constantly disadvantage the young. I don’t think I’m being cynical or conspiratorial to suggest this is because younger people are statistically less likely to vote and the Tories are therefore putting their electoral eggs in another demographic’s basket and sacrificing the young on the altar of spending cuts. That’s why they tripled tuition fees. That’s why they barred those under the age of 25 from the so-called ‘living wage’. That’s why they promised to axe housing benefit allowance for 18-21 year olds. That’s why they scrapped bursaries for university students, and changed the rules on university loan repayments – meaning students could now be out of pocket by thousands of pounds more than they signed up for.
No wonder the Government doesn’t want to give the younger generation – the one and a half million 16 and 17 year olds in this country - the power to hold them to account for these actions.
This argument isn’t new. Back in 2000 I moved the amendment at Labour Party Conference calling for the voting age to be lowered, having taken the argument through Labour’s National Policy Forum. It is a sobering thought that someone born that year is almost 16 – we’ve waited long enough, we’ve had enough discussion, it is time to get on with it.
I strongly believe 16 and 17 year olds should be able to have their say in elections. 16 is the age when most people start making real decisions over their lives. For many it’s the age when they start financially contributing to the country. Why should we bar them from connecting with the political process and exercising their democratic right? Why should we expect them to make their way as adults, all the while being treated like a child? And if your birthday falls at the beginning of a Parliament, it isn’t votes at 18, it is a first Parliamentary vote when you may be almost 23.
I’ve been very impressed with the political knowledge of young people when I have met 16 and 17 year olds throughout Cambridge. Just in the last couple of months I met students from Chesterton Community College, Hills Road Sixth Form College, North Cambridge Academy, and Parkside Community College. They were fizzing with questions that kept me on my toes, and were clearly really engaged with politics in this country.
Now, with the EU referendum on the horizon, I want young people to be given a chance to have a say on what will for them be a decision with long-term and far-reaching consequences. The House of Lords recently voted to amend the EU referendum bill to give 16 and 17 year olds the vote. But the House of Commons knocked it back. Now it looks like we’re all set for a game of legislative ping-pong as the Bill is struck back and forth between the two houses, neither willing to back down.
But this isn’t a game, it’s a democratic deadlock.
16 and 17 year olds were given the power to vote in the referendum on independence for Scotland in 2014, and the law has now been changed in Scotland to lower the voting age to 16 for local government elections in Scotland and elections to the Scottish Parliament. In Wales, the voting age for Assembly elections is also 16.
There is no good reason why the voting age should not also be lowered for this hugely important vote on the UK’s membership of the EU – except that the Tories think it works to their disadvantage. Young people currently shut out from democracy will have to live with the consequences of our country’s decision long after the rest of us. It’s time they had a voice.