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BRIT Review

Time To Let 16 & 17 Year Olds Vote? by Carol Jennions

Friday, June 02, 2017


The effect of the snap election on one cohort has been largely ignored. Many 15-17 year-olds feel they are being denied a say in the next parliament - one that will be sitting until many of them are working and paying taxes. 

Sally, 16, from Liverpool, is upset she cannot vote this time around. “I’m gutted. I know more about politics and what’s going on than lots of older people I speak to, teachers included. Any argument they make about me not voting could be extended to most people. How many read only one newspaper or none at all? How many will just go and tick a box because that’s what they’ve always done? It’s my future they’re playing with.”

One of Labour’s earliest election promises was to extend the voting franchise to 16-year-olds and they are joined in this by the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have stated within their manifesto they will keep minimum voting age at 18. 

So would extending voting rights to 16-18 year-olds make much of a difference, if any?

They’re already doing it

A recent YouGov poll had Labour sitting at 69% with voters aged 18-24 as opposed to 23% for over 65s. Young voters, when they vote, tend to vote more for left leaning parties and there is no reason to suggest this would change for even younger voters. This probably goes some way to explaining why it is an important manifesto pledge for Labour and equally why the Conservatives have been explicit about their intentions.

In the United Kingdom, the only democratic exercise involving these younger voters was the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. It was reported in open that 16 and 17 year olds demonstrated they were “engaged seriously” with the issues and “were often more engaged and so more informed than older people.” Fears about teachers influencing students were not borne out and most students thought their teachers successfully presented both sides. Voter turnout for 16 and 17 year olds in the Scottish referendum was higher, not only than for those in the 18-24 age bracket, but also for 25-34 year-olds. It was deemed such a success the Scottish Parliament voted overwhelmingly to extend voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds in all Scottish parliamentary and local elections. The leader of the Scottish Conservatives has even seen the advantages of young voters and has given her support.

It may be that the binary nature of the referendum gave them a sense they had a real say in the outcome. Participation may not translate to parliamentary politics where young people think their vote won’t make a difference. I believe it will.

And Scotland is not the only place to do so, not even the only place in the British Isles. In the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey 16 and 17 year-olds can vote. A White Paper proposing some voting rights for this age group has been produced in Wales. The House of Lords attempted to bring about a change to the EU referendum bill allowing them a say in that issue.

With responsibilities come rights

If under-18s are viewed as fit and able in Scotland, Wales end elsewhere, why are they not so in the the rest of the United Kingdom? Arguments against extending voting rights are varied, ranging from “they are not competent or mature”, “they could be easily influenced”, or “they are not informed enough”, to the Conservative’s “a line has to be drawn somewhere.” A counter argument is that at 16 you are liable to pay tax and for prescriptions, you can join the army and you can get married. Voting rights should go hand-in-hand with most of these responsibilities.

Sally’s friend John, a 19 year-old who will probably be voting Conservative in this election, claims his friends in Liverpool “would probably all vote Labour because that’s what their parents do.” Sally agrees some of her friends have used the same argument but “a lot of them just don’t care one way or the other whether they get a vote or not.”

While I agree some 16 year-olds would not have any interest in politics or in whether they can vote or not, the same could be said for many others. I think “getting them when they’re young” and educating them in meaningful engagement would produce a whole new switched on electorate. Hopefully their day is coming. 

About Carol 

Carol JennionsCarol is an Irish National living in the UK for seventeen years. 

In that time she has worked in local government, the NHS and third sector organisations. 

She is a Fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health and has a wide range of interest, including women’s rights, the NHS and youth engagement.


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