When 16- and 17-year-olds were given the vote for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, it created a cast-iron logic for introducing votes at 16 universally. Why should these particular young people be entrusted with the franchise, and not their counterparts in the rest of the UK? And why should they have a say on independence but not on who represents them at the local, Holyrood or Westminster level?
That ruling, passed into law this summer, made votes at 16 for all British elections more likely. But that is not why Ed Miliband was right to commit Labour to the policy in his conference speech last week. It was right because votes at 16 could be an important first step in addressing one of our most pressing problems: the widening gap between people and politics.
There are good reasons to think that giving people the vote at a younger age will improve the chances of them being engaged in politics for the rest of their life. According to Eric Plutzer, voting is a ‘gradually acquired habit’, and the earlier you get into that habit the more likely you will sustain it over a lifetime.
But voting should be more than just a behavioural tic, and that is why citizenship education is so important. If 16- and 17-year-olds are given the vote, they should already be thinking deeply about what it means to be a good citizen. One of the advantages of votes at 16 is that it allows young people to exercise their civic rights while their citizenship education is still fresh in their mind. But if that citizenship education is insufficient, then the benefits of early voting will not come through.
Many who teach citizenship in schools bemoan the fact that it is accorded too little status in the curriculum. Labour should think about embedding the votes at 16 pledge into their wider programme for renewing education policy, with particular emphasis on citizenship. Political reforms are too often framed within a ‘constitutional’ silo, cut off from the rest of public policy. Votes at 16 is the perfect antidote to this. It is by exploring every issue from education to the environment, from the economy to immigration that younger people will feel more motivated to come to the ballot box – not the other way round.
There are some excellent examples of what a renewed commitment to citizenship in schools might look like – a recent IPPR report cites four schools which not only take citizenship teaching seriously, but also instil a commitment to democratic participation in their students across their activities both in school and in the community.
If this kind of initiative is encouraged, then it could make the promise of votes at 16 turn into the reality of a more engaged society. This is not just about young people now. Votes at 16 could be the start of a wider debate about what constitutes political participation and what are the barriers stopping people of all ages from taking part.
In the end, this policy’s true measure of success will not be the numbers of 16- and 17-year-olds who turn out to vote, and it won’t even be the overall voter turnout in generations to come. It will be the degree to which people are more likely to participate in our democracy, whether in their neighbourhood, through their workplace or trade union, or as elected representatives. That should be the ultimate aim of any civic reform, and votes at 16 is no exception.
Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society