It would appear that Labour is giving very serious consideration to ensuring our nation’s 16 and 17-year-olds are given a vote in time for the next general election. About time too! The voting age in Britain was last reduced close to 40 years ago. Since then, there have been major changes in society’s expectations of young people and also in young people’s contribution to their local communities and wider society.
Currently, those aged 16 and 17 can work, pay taxes, join the Armed Forces and get married. They are often invited to set up school councils and youth councils, urged to take part in consultations, sit on local government and ministerial boards, volunteer in their local community, keep out of trouble and work hard at school. Many will have caring responsibilities or have a full-time or part-time job, some will be parents, and a minority will be leaving care or custody but they cannot elect those who govern them.
A few years ago the Electoral Commission carried out a public consultation on the voting age and found that 72 per cent of people favoured lowering it to 16. Interestingly the consultation attracted huge participation, including 8,000 young people which suggests that when made relevant to them, they are more likely to engage in issues of public importance.
The next general election will be decided in the super-marginals. Motivating younger voters is therefore both the right thing to do and it could make the difference between Labour winning and losing the next time round. That is why I strongly believe that as a party we must take young voters much more seriously. Rather than young people being uninterested in politics (as opposed to voting), we seem to have become uninterested in them. We bolt on campaigns for young voters rather than build them into what we do. This needs to change, and we now have a once in a generation chance to make that change and listen to what young people are saying.
Young people’s belief in politics could be helped by them knowing that they had a direct influence in choosing who represents them. In Austria – where they recently lowered the voting age to 16 – in local and regional elections the turnout amongst 16 and 17-year-olds was close to 75 per cent.
The Labour party was founded on principles of fairness and responsibility and out of a desire to look to the future, not live in the past. Sixteen is a progressive number, young people are our future and we should allow them a greater say in how it is shaped.
Mike Ion is a former secondary headteacher and Labour PPC.