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Votes at 16 could now be inevitable

October 12th, 2012

Henry G Manson on the moves in Scotland

The implications and significance of 16 and 17 year olds being entitled to vote in a referendum on Scotland’s independence is waking up politicians from their post-conference stupor. The impending logic is pretty straight forward.

    How can we justify allowing 16 year olds the right to vote on Scotland’s future, but not on who their local councillor or Member of Parliament might be?

There are a lot of things 16 year olds can already do and it’s going to be increasingly hard to arguing that they should not be able to vote. Andrew Adonis thinks has written a good piece in the latest Total Politics magazine about how votes at 16 would help with political education of young voters. Adonis says ‘we cannot carry on expecting democracy and social responsibility to be learned spontaneously or informally, and then complain when this doesn’t happen’.

Liberal Democrats, SNP and Plaid Cymru already back lowering the voting age to 16 and a number of Labour figures have been increasingly vocal of the need for change. Labour’s Shadow Children’s minister Lisa Nandy in particular has been pushing this within the party arguing that getting young people in the habit of voting at this age could help as they become older. Ed Miliband is coming round to the idea of making it a manifesto pledge and at the Labour conference in Manchester the Labour leader linked the issue with how young people are ignored and badly treated by the political process.

Conservative peer Lord Forsyth fears such a feature of the Scottish referendum measure would force the hands of MPs to respond by lowering the age in other elections. He’s right but would that be such a bad thing? What are Forsyth’s fears? According to Mori at the last election 18-24 year olds split between the three main political parties. The idea that young people are all lefties ‘occupying’ and going on protest marches is nonsense. Some will insist 16 year olds aren’t well informed enough to vote, but anyone who has ever canvassed the electorate should be under no illusion that the voters do not automatically become avid Any Questions listeners following their 18th.

That said, despite there being no figures available to back it up, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if there was some hardening of opposition by 16 and 17 year olds against the coalition parties in the last two years. Youth unemployment is over 1 million, the trebling of the university fees cap, cuts to college courses and the ending of the Educational Maintenance Allowance is in contrast to the continuation of winter fuel allowance and free bus travel enjoyed by many affluent older voters. If the 16 and 17 year olds currently had the vote would ministers have thought twice about some of these decisions? I wonder.

Political parties are in the vote-harvesting business. If you don’t have a vote or don’t turn out to vote then you become less important to those that do. This has never more been that case than at a time of fierce competition of limited resources. Give young people the vote and you give them a say.

Lowering the voting age in the Scottish independence referendum is therefore significant. It can only lead one way. If the Conservative peers and MPs resist and try to block lowering the voting age then they risk looking little more than fuddy-duddies trying to delay the inevitable. The more observant of today’s 16 or 17 year olds might remember this and recall it at the time of the next general election – when they will be able to vote as 18 and 19 year olds.

Henry G Manson