16: Old enough to die for Britain but not to vote for it?

It was John Bright MP who, in 1865, described England as the “Mother of all Parliaments”, proclaiming our democracy the finest in the world and one which most other societies follow.

At the time, the Electoral Reform Act of 1832 was bringing sweeping changes to the British political landscape but it was still an era when only 5% of the population was entitled to vote and 50 years before polling stations admitted women. In 2013 we still lie behind countries such as Nicaragua, Brazil, Estonia and most recently Argentina in allowing democratic choice to 16 year olds. So is our democracy as wonderful as we are led to believe?

A photo of campaigning youngsters
Campaigning to lower the voting age in California


Whilst 18 and 21 are celebrated as major coming of age points in our lives, but a far bigger milestone comes a little bit earlier. Once we pass 16 we are able to leave education to get a job and pay taxes, considered old enough to make informed decisions about marriage and procreation, smoke cigarettes and join the armed forces to fight for our country. What we are not able to do though is have a voice in the election of the people who make the laws that affect each of those decisions.

Harold Wilson’s Labour government reduced the voting age in Britain from 21 to 18 in time for the 1970 General Election. It was thought that with many young people receiving their political guidance and information from teachers (who tend to be of a Socialist persuasion) the Labour vote would be helped for the forthcoming election. However, to the surprise of many, Ted Heath’s Conservative party won a surprise majority and, despite the extra one million young voters eligible, a low turnout on polling day was considered a contributing factor to Heath’s victory.

Recently, The House of Commons has been debating whether 16 and 17 year olds should get the vote. In Scotland, there are plans to lower the voting age for the 2014 referendum on independence whilst the Isle of Mann already allows votes at 16 as do Jersey and Guernsey. Austria became the first EU country to give votes to 16 year olds in 2007 whilst some German regions allow 16 year olds votes in local elections. In January 2013 a back bench motion calling for the change was passed by the Commons but the Government, led by a Conservative party reluctant to the idea, still has to approve it. Stephen Williams MP has long been a supporter of the motion, saying, “I have long believed that 16 year olds are mature enough to vote, if they want to.”

There are those in favour of actually raising the voting age back to 21, some people believing 18 year olds are too easily swayed by external influences and liable to be taken in by corrupt politicians. Some think that teenagers with exams to pass, jobs to find and all manner of personal issues with which to deal are still learning about themselves and society. There are even biological arguments suggesting that the human brain is not fully developed until the age of 19, therefore unable to make an educated choice, ignoring the fact that the law allows people below that age to go to war, drive cars and have sex.

It seems older generations think that young people are not able to make an informed political decision and most teenagers are not interested in politics anyway.These are arguments that Williams refutes in his blog. “I have met many older voters in their fifties and sixties who are remarkably ignorant about the world around them. We don’t suggest taking the vote off people who have no qualifications and stubbornly held but ill informed opinions. So we should not continue to withhold the vote from the best informed generation of young people.”

Ahead of elections, we hear a lot about the ‘Grey Vote’ and the ‘Worcester Woman’, terms used to describe key demographics that can swing a tight election and are targeted by political parties. Their votes are seen as vital in marginal constituencies and much policy is driven to attract the elderly or 30 something voters. Why should 16 and 17 year olds not be considered mature enough to make a choice when supposedly more responsible people are able to be swayed so easily?

A photo of a 16 year old campaigning for the vote
Former UKYP member Katie Blaze Rowe campaigns for votes for 16 year olds

The UK Youth Parliament (UKYP) was the brainchild of Andrew Rowe, a Conservative MP, in the 1990s. Realising how politically astute young people were, he believed they should have their own Parliamentary voice to help bring about social change. Run by young people for young people, UKYP now has over 600 MYPs aged between 11 and 18 from across the country. The elected representatives work alongside MPs and with their communities on matters affecting young people and have annual sittings in the House of Commons. With groups such as the British Youth Council helping to empower young people by campaigning for 16 year olds to get the vote and with over a quarter of a million young people voting on UKYP campaigns, their is certainly evidence that many young people are politically minded.

We don’t deny people over 18 the right to vote because they have pressing family, work or financial commitments. We don’t test an adult’s mental state or political persuasion before they are allowed to put an X in a box. To judge all 16 and 17 year olds as politically naive and unable to make an informed decision is patronising. There is a recent apathy in Britain from all age groups towards politicians and democracy which has lead to low turn-out at elections but to exclude such an active part of society as the young does nothing to help. When politicians talk up our advanced political system ahead of other regimes it is worth noting that Iran, that most undemocratic of nations, allows votes for 15 year olds. Before British politicians preach to the developing world about the strength of our democracy, perhaps they should look closer to home and extend these rights to all of their constituents.

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