Give Wayne Rooney the vote

Allow 16-year-olds in the polling booths, and cut electoral apathy

Everton's new star footballer, Wayne Rooney, who reached his 17th birthday a few days ago, is likely soon to sign a £10,000-a-week contract. Like other high earners, he will pay 40 per cent of the money to the Treasury. Unlike most taxpayers, however, he will have absolutely no say over how it is spent. He is considered too young to choose which politicians should decide on issues - in sport, for example - that are likely to concern him intimately.

Likewise, a few of the young entrepreneurs on the latest Times Rich List have no say over economic and industrial policy; an estimated 30,000 young carers cannot influence the provision of social and health services; and the opinions on defence and foreign policy of the 16- and 17-year-olds who serve in the armed forces count for nothing. Parents under 18 have no say over family policy and childcare provision, nor do young victims of crime have any on the criminal justice system.

That may all soon change. Lowering the voting age is no longer a policy that dare not speak its name in Labour circles. Other parties are moving and it cannot be long before the Tories see this as a popular, and proper, policy to espouse. A campaign is about to be launched, and the Electoral Commission has promised to look at the issue again in a forthcoming review.

We have come a long way since 1832, when just 31, no doubt very grand, citizens were allowed to elect the honourable member to represent Edinburgh at Westminster. But not far enough. Property and gender are no longer reasons for restricting political rights, but age still is.

The arguments used in 1971 for giving 18- to 21-year-olds the vote apply just as much to 16- and 17-year-olds.

First and foremost is the basic democratic principle that there should be no taxation without representation. Young workers pay income tax and national insurance, young shoppers pay VAT and the Inland Revenue cheerfully collects the money without reference to date of birth.

Second, consider the discrepancy between the myriad rights and responsibilities that are conferred once 16 candles have been blown out and the continued withholding of the vote for a further two years. If people are old enough to marry, die for their country, change their names by deed poll, and pay prescription charges and full fares on public transport, what happens to them in the subsequent two years that further qualifies them to vote?

Moreover, citizenship classes are now compulsory in schools up to the age of 16. If young people are not ready to vote at the end of this period of instruction, when will they be? If the lessons are successful in enthusing young people to participate in democracy, it seems perverse then to put up a "closed: please come back in two years" sign on the ballot box.

Some newly enthused graduates of citizenship classes will, in fact, have to wait much longer than 24 months for a general election. Many of those now aged 11 and 12 - who will be the first to be taught citizenship throughout secondary school - will turn 16 in 2006, the year that Tony Blair must go to the country. Yet, depending on when birthdays fall and when the prime minister calls the election, some of that cohort of newly informed young adults will be in their twenties before they are allowed near a ballot box. In fact, if Blair continues with a four-year cycle for calling elections, even today's 14-year-olds will not (barring by-elections) be able to vote for an MP until they are 21, in 2009.

And here lies the killer argument for lowering the voting age. It should be heeded by anyone who professes concern about declining turnout and voter apathy. A poll commissioned from YouGov by the Social Market Foundation (and revealed here for the first time), shows a remarkable link between the age at which people first vote in a general election and their inclination to use that vote. People who turn 18 in the year leading up to an election are significantly more likely to vote than those who turned 18 in the year after an election and have therefore had to wait up to five years to get their hands on that stubby pencil tied to a bit of string.

The Social Market Foundation poll looked at the turnout for young voters of different ages in the 2001 general election. It found a dramatic difference between 27-year-olds and 28-year-olds. Turnout among 27-year-olds was only 49 per cent; among 28-year-olds, it was 65 per cent. Why? The only conceivable explanation is that the first group was too young to vote in the 1992 general election, and therefore had to wait five years to influence the choice of a government. The 28-year-olds, by contrast, had turned 18 in time for the 1992 election and went to vote with freshness and enthusiasm. This enthusiasm carried through to 1997 (when 70 per cent voted, against 64 per cent of those who just missed voting in 1992) and had diminished only slightly by the 2001 election.

This remarkable "birth effect" was also found among those going to the polls for the first time in 2001. Among 22-year-olds, who had waited four years to vote, the turnout was 54 per cent; among 19-year-olds, it was as high as 68 per cent and thus well above the national average.

Lowering the voting age to 16 cannot erase the lottery of birthdays, but it will ensure that everyone can participate in a general election by the time they turn 21. If it is true that those who vote young vote often, then the case against lowering the voting age to 16, which has long been weak, is now indefensible.

Nigel Griffiths is Labour MP for Edinburgh South; Beth Egan is deputy director of the Social Market Foundation. The YouGov poll in September 2002 surveyed 1,044 20- to 30-year-olds