Just 50 years ago today 18-year olds in the UK were given the vote. Before then only those 21 or over had the right. It seems almost unbelievable that it took so long: 18-year olds had gone to war for the country, they had paid taxes that contributed to the establishment of the NHS, they had been marrying and having families. And yet it took until the 1960s to give them the vote.
Half a century later and the same disenfranchisement persists. In the 2016 EU referendum and the latest general election – two of the most pivotal electoral decisions for generations – those most affected were silenced before they got to the ballot box.
Yet 16-year olds have proven that they are responsible enough to be given the vote. They have taken part in Scottish MSP elections and we have seen them increasingly use their democratic rights to urge our government to change course. Just a few months ago, thousands of them gathered in London to demand that the Conservatives urgently tackle climate change, and we saw many take to the streets to call for a People’s Vote. When they can vote, 16- and 17-year olds have higher rates of turnout than 18 to 24-year-olds, with 75 per cent voting and 97 per cent saying they would vote in future elections.
So why the hold-up in giving them the vote? For years, Liberal Democrats have campaigned to give them the right and now voices from across the political spectrum are joining us in that campaign. The calls are getting louder, and it is very difficult to see that there is any real justification for the Conservative government’s steadfast refusal.
Not only have 16-year olds proven themselves to be democratically responsible enough, but they pay income tax and National Insurance, they can work full-time, and hold many other responsibilities besides. Not giving them the vote means they have all these responsibilities without any influence on the decisions that affect them. It means denying them an influence over their representative in Parliament and leaving to chance whether their MP will take any action on the issues impacting them. To those who say they aren’t engaged and don’t know enough, I say, go speak to them. Most are articulate, passionate and well informed. Some feel they aren’t ready, but we do not have mandatory voting and so they would naturally opt out, just as many people over 18 already do.
We’re in the middle of one of the most tumultuous periods in British politics. Who knows what might happen next. Liberal Democrats have been leading the fight for a People’s Vote and we’re getting closer to that with each day. There are calls for a General Election, and we have both local and European elections just around the corner. All of these will be crucial to deciding the direction of the country.
Yet young people will be barred from participating. It’s unjustifiable. Any functioning democracy should embrace giving more people the vote, not fear it.
The reality of the disenfranchisement of young people is that the current mess the country is in may well have been avoided if young people had been included in the referendum. YouGov’s recent poll finds that as many as 87 per cent of young people would vote Remain. It is unfair that the government have shown nothing but contempt for them and their futures, and has instead pandered entirely to what was a wafer-thin majority wanted. A majority that is heavily represented by those who have had decades of enjoying the benefits and freedoms of EU membership only to strip it from those who haven’t.
No matter how you voted in 2016 you’d probably now recognise that the current state of British politics is far from ideal. The Conservatives have made a mess of Brexit and both Labour and the Tories are hopelessly divided. It is perhaps not surprising then that our politics has been marked by a decreasing turnout of young people at elections. Giving young people the vote would help normalise the behaviour of engaging in politics and taking part in elections: ensuring that it sticks with people for the rest of their lives. By refusing to give 16- and 17-year olds the vot,e the Conservative Government are risking worsening voter apathy and being on the wrong side of history.
I became an MP in 2017 and have been around to watch Liberal Democrat party membership soar We now have the youngest members of any party. I am also one of the youngest MPs in the House of Commons and sit on the green benches with dozens of others my age or younger who are fantastic MPs. The future of British politics is not the pale, male and stale stereotype of tradition. Things are changing for the better.
The future of British politics is diverse. On this 50th anniversary of votes at 18 it’s time we give 16- and 17-year olds the vote to reflect that progress.
Layla Moran is the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West & Abingdon.