This post originally appeared in the Young Fabians Anticipations magazine in 2015.
Welcome to 2015, where millions of young people debate complex public policy developments in the digital world. They give annual speeches from the dispatch box of the House of Commons, and they lobby politicians nationwide on a range of issues in their communities. It is an age where political education is cheap and accessible, and one where their voices are raw and powerful. A broad coalition of charities, led by the British Youth Council, have fought for years to lower the voting age to sixteen, seeking to empower young people by proposing a bold redefinition of the electorate. Their efforts were buoyed by the House of Lords’ definitive preference for young suffrage in the draft EU Referendum Bill.
It is Labour’s duty as the opposition to bring the teenage perspective into the debate for three reasons. The first is that an extended franchise would give a more balanced perspective on Britain’s feelings towards the European Union. Secondly, the precedent set by the independence referendum in Scotland dispels myths that school-age young people are apathetic. Lastly, the rationale that young people lack the maturity to decide downplays the significant personal choices many have to make in their late teens, which can be more onerous than a choice on polling day.
The inherent danger in restricting the Europe vote to ‘legal adults’ is that it skews the debate to a disproportionately reactionary perspective. Populus showed that where 47% of those aged 45+ seek to leave the European Union, 47% of under 45s support continued membership. The British Election Study revealed that up to 70% of teenagers are ‘europhilic.’ Whereas older, more frequent voters are decidedly eurosceptic, the areas that have been unqualified successes by the European project attract great currency with young people. These forward-looking, clear benefits include Erasmus university exchanges, mutual recognition of qualifications (crucial for those at the start of their careers), freedom from visas and tackling climate change. Consider the seventeen-year-old applying to a university course containing a sandwich European exchange year. They could conceivably be robbed of the course of their choosing without a say on the matter if unable to vote in the referendum. Their inclusion makes this a debate about Britain’s future, rather than its past.
The baby boomers’ retrospective scepticism stems from the EU’s growth into a socio-political body, i.e. an entity much different from that which they voted for in 1975. The involvement of teenagers without that baggage brings a fresh perspective from which we can hope for, and work towards, something better.
We can see a lower voting age as an opportunity for life-long engagement by looking at comparative elections. Despite popular claims to the contrary, ever younger voters do not depress turnout figures. They increase it. Psephologists analysing the Scottish Independence Referendum suggest that turnout amongst those aged younger than eighteen was between 75%- 80%. The view that this is due to parents taking their live-at-home children to the poll station only partially explains this. The converse has also been reported. In a number of Scottish households, children exposed to discussion of political topics at school reminded and encouraged their parents to turn out on the day. Young suffrage makes voting into a family exercise with multiple useful outcomes. Active citizenship can be encouraged from the formative years of millennial lives, and disenchanted adults can be enthused to vote by their children. The experience of Austria, where the minimum voting age is also sixteen, shows that teenage turnout is not dissimilar from general turnout figures, and the burst of energy that an extended franchise would give our democracy should not be debunked lightly.
The final point is heavily reductionist, but practical. Young people aged sixteen have significant legal rights and make fundamental decisions about their lives. They give consent to intercourse, join the armed forces, get married and rent accommodation. A year later, they may be treated as full adults in criminal proceedings, drive cars and donate blood. To deny them the full opportunity to shape public policy, a world that they already participate in to a high degree, negates their full agency. This is arguably a breach of international legal instruments such as Article 21 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and young people need their representatives to give a voice to them in light of this.
The road is not an easy one. It will take cross-party support, backbench rebellions, extensive lobbying from campaigners and manoeuvring around the government’s whip to show that young people do care about their country’s place in the world. Now that the participation age has been raised to eighteen, older teens are a captive audience for receiving political information and becoming active citizens at colleges, sixth forms and schools. As the referendum shows, they benefit from all meaningful opportunities to have their say. The establishment fears a need to speak with clarity, employ modern voter registration methods and most importantly create a future-focused offer that is truly plural. Votes at sixteen in the EU referendum could revive our democracy, and, as happened in 1975, give a generation of young people something to look forward to.