MPs should vote with their consciences for votes at 16

A tightly whipped move would be a disservice to the UK's future


Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions offered, unusually, some genuine news (on top of the usual jeering). Responding to a question from Harriet Harman, the prime minister said that he backed offering MPs a vote on whether 16 and 17-year-olds will be able to take part in the EU referendum.

We would of course like to see the government simply come out in support of extending the franchise. Short of that happening, signalling a Commons vote is nonetheless a welcome development.

But it’s not enough for it to be a tightly whipped move with parties demanding their MPs vote a certain way – with David Cameron opposing extending the franchise. We need a free vote.

This is an issue that many MPs and constituents feel very strongly about, but one which didn’t get much attention before the election. Now’s the time for a real open debate on this issue. After all, the prime minister suggested it would be a conscience vote earlier in the year. It would be a disservice not to stick to this.

Why? This referendum is an opportunity to give 16 and 17-year-olds a chance to decide on an issue which really affects them – covering housing, our environment, jobs, migration and a whole host of pressing topics which affect this generation.

The proof is in the pudding. 16 and 17-year-olds threw themselves wholeheartedly into the Scottish referendum, with 75 per cent voting and 97 per cent saying they would vote in future elections.

Well over a hundred thousand – the vast majority – registered. There’s no reason why 16-and 17-year olds across the UK should be denied a similar vote in the EU referendum and miss the chance to engage with British democracy.

Votes at 16 isn’t even a radical idea by UK standards anymore. Hundreds of thousands more young people are set to be given the franchise for local and nationwide elections in Wales and Scotland, with legislation currently making progress in the Scottish parliament and the power to decide on the voting age recently devolved to Wales.

It would be absurd if those same young people were denied a vote in the upcoming EU referendum. But it would also be an injustice if they were given votes at 16 and others in the UK were not.

The prime minister has reaffirmed his desire to reclaim ‘the mantle of One Nation’. Yet with 16 and 17-year-olds getting the vote in Scotland and Wales, this could become an issue which drives a wedge between the nations of the UK.

Why have so many different franchises? Instead we could have a UK-wide franchise which is open, democratic and which sends a positive message to our young people that their opinions genuinely count.

This is an issue of both pragmatics and principle – 16 and 17-year-olds are the generation of school-leavers who will most strongly feel the impact of the EU vote in the years to come.

So this Commons vote is a real opportunity to discuss the kind of franchise that is right for a 21st century democracy. The way forwards is clear – Westminster should follow the suit of Scotland and Wales in giving 16 and 17-year-olds a say on their country’s constitutional future.

There are Conservative MPs and ministers, such as Constitutional Reform minister John Penrose, who have previously spoken up for votes at 16 who we hope may still persuade their party to change direction.

Short of that, this vote is a welcome step forward in the push for a truly inclusive franchise. As the Votes at 16 coalition have suggested, on this constitutional issue it’s only right that instead of being told how to vote by party whips, MPs can weigh up the arguments for themselves.

After the uplifting experience in Scotland, the push for a fairer franchise now stands every chance of succeeding.

Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society. Follow her on Twitter

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14 Responses to “MPs should vote with their consciences for votes at 16”

  1. Godfrey Paul

    Children should not be given the vote.

  2. AlanGiles

    The age of disillusion will set in earlier. We all know that politicians of all parties will say what they think people want to hear – they don’t believe they can do half of it. However, I think if you do this to 16/17 year olds you will only do it once, and they will just ignore the ballot box thereafter.

    The only people who vote regularly are pensioners (hope over experience?), and I am not convinced that 16 year olds will not be seen by politicians as easy to dupe. They are patronising enough to older people – just image the oleaginous “charm” that will be ladelled out by some of them to 16/17 first time voters

  3. bluebottle1

    This is all because the SNP have started this, Unless you have paid tax or NI then sorry but no vote until you are 18.

  4. swat

    I am against Votes at 16. If16 , why not 14, or even 11?
    They simply are not mature or have the experience at 16. and BTW they shouldn’t be allowed to marry or smoke or join the Army or drink at 16/17 either. Its an absolute nonsense. And as someone has pointed out they don’t pay taxes at 16, and all of them should be at home with their parents doing their homework.

  5. Walter Houston

    16- and 17-year-olds are not children. The law may classify them as such for certain purposes, but they certainly don’t regard themselves as children, and they are just as capable as over-18s of grasping the issues and reaching an informed decision.

  6. Godfrey Paul

    In the UK all those under 18 are classified as children for official purposes. It is based on the UN classification.

  7. TwilaMJackson

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  8. Cat

    I fear the main reason that-politicians mostly on the right secretly don’t want to give the vote to 16 years olds that they don’t want to admit to is purely because they know that the majority are more likely to vote on the Left or pro-EU then the Right or anti-EU and want to cynically prevent that from happening.
    Surely they must know in the long term they are only going to cost themselves votes due to this.

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  10. Dave Stewart

    16 and 17 year olds do pay taxes. They pay NI (albeit at a lower rate) and they pay income tax if they are earning enough (they often aren’t). I presume you were talking about direct incomes taxes because they also pay VAT, car tax, council tax, airport duty etc etc.

  11. Ian East

    As a 61 year I would like a vote in elections that actually has a value instead of being a mere symbolic gesture. The Labour Party should embrace electoral reform and campaign for existing votes to have more equal value before worrying about extending the voting age.

    If the Party really believes in greater fairness and equality it should start with our electoral system.

  12. Ringstone

    It is internationally recognised that 18 is the age at which adulthood begins, this is enshrined in Article 1 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to which we are signatories. What nation in its right mind gives the vote to children?

  13. Patrick Nelson

    It’s silly though, especially when 16 years old can have sex, smoke, get married, join the army get brutalized during training and even go to war etc.

  14. James Cathcart

    A lot of older people are not experienced or mature but they also have the right to vote. A democracy ought to encourage its youth to question politicians and have accompanying power through the ballot box to judge them if the answers and promises are not good enough or followed through. As we continue to develop as a society through education, new media and self-discovery – it is inevitable that each generation is learning and accessing and understand more that previous generations. That’s progress and it challenges us to ensure this generations interest is rewarded with quality citizenship education so that they learn how to cast their vote based on informed choice. Something that will permeate the age groups as they get older. 16 is the new age for democracy – and no one is calling for it to be lower.

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