Stephen Williams MP writes about the debate on reducing the voting age to 16. This is especially relevant now as the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum will be open to 16 and 17 year olds.
The time has come for a vital step in the renewal of Britain’s democracy. Giving the right to vote to sixteen and seventeen year olds now has widespread support across the political spectrum. British citizens aged sixteen can already vote in some elections and their counterparts can do so in some of the world’s largest democracies.
So the time is right for me to have my second attempt as an MP to lower the voting age. Today I will open a debate in the House of Commons on a votable resolution to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in all UK elections and referenda. The last time I tried was in 2005. On that occasion my Bill was defeated by just eight votes. This time I am optimistic that the majority of MPs now favour change.
So why do I believe in trusting people in their late mid teens with the vote? Have the case for change got better in the last seven years?
First, I have long believed that 16 year olds are mature enough to vote, if they want to. Years of experience of talking and listening to sixth form and college students has convinced me that enough of them have the knowledge about their communities and the wider world to make judgements on how they want the future to look. The curriculum itself and extra curricula activities have made the current generation of late teens the best informed and engaged in our history, making them more prepared for the world outside of the classroom. Frankly, I have met many young people who are more informed and interested in politics than their parents or grandparents are, or even their older siblings who can vote. We should not continue to withhold the vote from the best informed generation of young people.
Some MPs say they are worried about sixteen and seventeen year olds being influenced by their parents or older siblings. This was a similar view advanced a hundred years ago against giving votes to women or to poor working men. With the advent of the internet young people in 2013 have more information and a wider range of views at their fingertips than any generation before them.
Many people have argued that the best reason for giving sixteen and seventeen year olds the vote is the long list of other rights and responsibilities they already enjoy. No taxation without representation has been around for a long time. But once you’ve worked your way through the rest of the list – joining the army, driving a car, joining a union and full rights over medical treatment among them, I believe that the most compelling right is the age of consent for sex. What can be more fundamental than the potential to bring another human being into the world?
Giving more young people the right to vote would also go some way to rebalancing the demographics of the franchise. The “grey vote” is becoming more significant as our society ages. Older people are also more likely to turn out, giving them even greater electoral firepower. Our democracy is in danger of becoming a gerontocracy as the will of the old trumps the needs of the young.
If Parliament had accepted my proposals in 2005 the UK would have set an example to the world. That’s no longer the case. One EU member state, Austria, has allowed sixteen year olds to vote since 2007. Most German states, Lander and cities allow 16 year olds to vote; the Burgermesiter of Hannover, Bristol’s twin city, has to appeal to 16 year olds as well as 46 year olds. Brazil, one of the world’s largest democracies, has long allowed sixteen year olds to vote. But it’s here in the British Isles that the most relevant change has taken place. In 2006 the Isle of Man lowered the voting age. Jersey and Guernsey followed in 2007. The Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly want to give their sixteen year olds the vote but need Westminster approval. Most compelling of all is the recent agreement by the UK government to allow the Scottish Parliament the right to set the franchise for the referendum on Scotland’s future with the UK, in 2014.
So British citizens are already voting for their elected representatives in the Crown dependencies. Scots teens north of the border could hold the key to the future of the United Kingdom. The genie is now out of the bottle. It is time to trust all British sixteen year olds with the franchise. The time has come for votes at 16 and I call on all supporters to ask their MP to move our democracy forward and vote with me today.