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Why 16 year olds should get the vote

At the age of 16 a British citizen can legally have sex, get married, join the army, smoke, leave home, claim benefits, and contribute to the public purse through taxes – but vote in a general election? Not yet.

In next month’s Scottish Referendum, 16 and 17-year-olds living in Scotland will get to vote. Photo: Getty
In next month’s Scottish Referendum, 16 and 17-year-olds living in Scotland will get to vote. Photo: Getty

Here’s a stark statistic for anyone interested in British politics: the three lowest post-war electoral turnouts in the UK occurred in the last three general elections – in 2001, 2005 and 2010. Less than two thirds of those entitled to vote went to the polls at the last UK general election, a slight improvement on the previous two elections – but, compared to 1950, almost 20 per cent fewer eligible voters exercised this hard-won right. Dwindling electoral turnout is not something a democratic country should overlook. The mandate of the government comes from the collective will of the people. But despite this, there are over 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK who are not legally entitled to have their say. By contrast, in next month’s Scottish Referendum 16 and 17-year-olds living in Scotland will get to vote on whether Scotland remains part of the UK, yet at next year’s general election, the same age group across the UK will have to watch passively while older citizens go to the ballot box.

It’s true that turnout in recent general elections has been poor amongst younger voters. Under 40 per cent of 18-24-year-olds voted in 2001 and 2005 and, despite the close race in 2010, the youth vote only increased to 44 per cent – seven percentage points lower than in 1997. But this is no reason to continue to deny the right to vote to 16 and 17-year-olds. Quite the opposite; extending the franchise to this age group would create an excellent opportunity to increase youth interest and participation in mainstream and especially electoral politics. Research suggests that politically literate citizens are more likely to participate in democracy, and schools and colleges play a key role in preparing young people for democratic life. Giving the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds would therefore help re-focus citizenship education lessons that were introduced by Labour in 2002 and which, despite being revised and slimmed-down by the current coalition government, continue to contain an important political participative dimension.

Preventing people from voting until they are 18 means that many citizens, in practice, do not get a chance to vote in general elections until they are well into their 20s. Whilst there is much to be said in favour of the Fixed-term Parliament Act introduced in 2011, one consequence of ensuring that general elections will not be held more frequently than once every five years (except where a vote of no confidence in the government is passed or where two-thirds of MPs support the holding of a general election) is that even more young people will be negatively affected in this way. This is extremely unfortunate given that the evidence suggests that unless young people acquire the habit of voting at an early stage they will carry on failing to vote as they get older. Of course, lowering the voting age to 16 would not be a panacea to youth disengagement from electoral politics specifically or mainstream politics in general. A range of additional measures are required, such as those set out in the report Beyond the Youth Citizenship Commission published by the Political Studies Association earlier this year, including the formation of a standing Commission on Education for Citizenship to monitor provision in schools and colleges in England; compulsory electoral registration in schools and colleges across the UK; and the establishment of compulsory annual MP and local councillor constituency surgeries and political party policy forums aimed at young people to be held in local schools, colleges and community centres.

Young people have been marginalised in public policy in recent years and votes at 16 would help address this. They have borne the brunt of austerity measures, such as increased university tuition fees and the closure of youth centres, introduced since the onset of the global financial crisis. Despite this, research has demonstrated that young people are not apathetic – they are interested in “politics”, broadly defined, have their own views and engage in ways they feel are appropriate to their everyday lives. However, whilst alternative forms of democratic engagement, such as consumer politics, community campaigns, and the use of online technology are very important modes of political participation, the disengagement of significant numbers of young people from formal politics has very negative consequences for representative British democracy that must be tackled.

The likelihood of votes at 16 is increasing. In 2010, the Liberal Democrats made clear their commitment to this policy in their general manifesto and Labour leader Ed Miliband announced his support last year in his party conference speech in Brighton. The inclusion of 16 and 17-year-olds in the referendum on Scotland’s independence will add to this pressure. The referendum is offering the next generation of Scottish workers, parents, educators, and even political leaders, the chance to have an impact on a decision which will shape their future. It’s time that more young people across the UK have the chance to do this in all elections. An inclusive conception of citizenship demands that the viewpoints of young people must be heard. If the political establishment are serious about listening to their views then across the political spectrum they should commit to lowering the voting age to 16.

Dr Ben Kisby is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln, UK, and an active member of the Political Studies Association. He is organising a PSA-funded event on young people’s politics on 5 September 2014 at the University of Lincoln, which is open to anyone who would like to come along. For more information and to register to attend please email: bkisby[at]lincoln[dot]ac[dot]uk. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not the PSA.