By Sadiq Khan - 24th January 2013
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan tells PoliticsHome why he thinks 16 and 17-year-olds should get the vote.
Think of some of the things that a 16 year old is able to do of their own free will, like marry or enter into a civil partnership, become the director of a company, and join the armed forces. And think of the things that the state has decided a 16 year old in work must do, such as paying income tax and National Insurance. So, while in a pure numbers sense, 16 year olds may be technically teenagers, they are also young adults deemed old enough and responsible enough to begin to take part and engage in adult life by being afforded some incredibly important privileges. And yet, our young adults are not allowed to step into a voting booth to select the elected representatives that govern them on a daily basis.
Just last week I visited a local sixth form in my constituency and whilst being impressed with the general brilliance of the students - their passion to learn and a desire to do well – what was also extremely clear was their interest in the political system and the effect that political decisions had on their own lives. It makes absolutely no sense at all that we expect 16 year olds to behave and engage like young adults, and in some cases ask inordinate things of them, like laying down their life for their country, and yet they are in no way allowed to choose the person(s) that may send them to a war zone, or decide how best to spend the tax they’ve paid on their earnings. This doesn’t strike me as being fair or progressive. In fact it is so out of date that it’s embarrassing that this hasn’t been addressed in previous decades. The last time Parliament reduced the voting age was in 1969, when it was reduced from 21 to 18. Those against reducing the vote age to 16 use remarkably similar arguments to those against that voting change.
The wider issue here is political engagement more generally. We all saw the poor turnouts in the recent Police and Crime Commissioner elections and various parliamentary by-elections. This doesn’t offer much evidence that the great British public are chomping at the bit to get into the polling booth. So, I want to be honest in admitting that giving the vote to 16 year olds is not some crude attempt to bolster the voting numbers, and nor should it be. Instead, I believe it crucial to re-energising political debate and engagement in the UK. With 16 year olds on the electoral roll I would hope that we would see a renewed vigour in politics which would not only be a forward thinking progressive move – but I also believe it would encourage more young people to get more involved in mainstream politics. It would open up the political classes and in turn make our politicians more representative of the nation we are.
When in government, Labour introduced citizenship into the National Curriculum. Rather than cutting this, as this government wants, we should be bolstering the teaching of citizenship and politics in schools. There is evidence that if someone votes in their first election after they reach the age of majority, they are likely to carry on voting in subsequent elections, whereas if you don’t vote in that first election, you are unlikely to ever vote. Bearing this in mind, we should be also considering having polling booths at schools and 6th form colleges. This would mean first time 16, 17 and 18 year olds voters voting the first time they can and continuing to be active citizens throughout their life.
So I think that it’s right that we re-balance the responsibilities and privileges of our 16 and 17 year olds. I believe it is wrong that we allow and expect them to become part of an adult world, but refuse them a democratic stake in how that adult world is managed. I think 16 year olds should have a say in the way our country is governed and a rebalancing of the scales which currently sees our young adults give so much for very little in return. That’s why today I and the Labour frontbench will be voting in support of reducing the voting age in all elections and referenda to 16.