A positive step on the road to equal votes

In a House where the average age is 70, more than half supported giving young people a voice


On Monday we were given fresh evidence – if any more was needed – of the astonishing impact of the independence referendum on Scottish politics: a quarter of 16 and 17 year olds – who had a vote – have joined a political party since September’s ballot.

Engagement in politics is surging north of the border – and it seems to be the highest among young people.

The findings follow a crucial vote last Wednesday in the House of Lords. Peers voted 221-154 on Wednesday in favour of allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections.

This is of course yet another win for the campaign for votes at 16. That Peers voted by a majority of 67 to support a fairer franchise – in a House where the average age is 70 – is clearly a sign of how far this debate has come, and how strong backing is for these young people to get a say.

After the summer this change will be voted on in the Commons. We’re hoping the lessons from Scotland will encourage MPs to think again about their rejection of the move last month.

One of the most frequently-peddled myths about this issue is that young people just don’t care. Yet on top of the surge in party membership among this generation during the Scottish referendum, 75 per cent of those 16 and 17-year-olds voted and 97 per cent said they would do so in the future. They accessed more information than any other age group, and registered in their thousands.

It’s a lesson that’s been well heeded in Holyrood. The Scottish parliament unanimously (yes, unanimously) passed Votes at 16 last month. So now young Scots will get a chance to vote in almost all elections there – except, of course, for Westminster.

There’s progress elsewhere too, though. Wales is set to lower the voting age next year after the power is devolved in the upcoming Wales Bill. The largest ever consultation on the issue in Wales showed this week that 53 per cent of young people in Wales (compared to just 29 per cent against) back the move.

Crucially, 79 per cent also think it’s important for their age group to learn about politics – with the majority saying school is the best place for it.

In Westminster however, there’s a danger that last week’s success in the Lords could be reversed when parliament comes back to the Commons after recess. That’s why we need to encourage MPs to back the move.

With 16 and 17-year-olds getting the vote in Scotland and Wales, it would be pretty insulting to the 1.5 million 16 and 17-year olds across the UK for the government to reject the Lords vote when the Bill returns to the Commons. The first generation to receive citizenship education want a voice in politics, and the government should support that.

David Cameron said during the election that he wanted a debate on the issue. The Scottish Conservatives now back extending the franchise, following Scottish Conservative party leader Ruth Davidson’s change of heart on this issue – opposing votes at 16 before the referendum and supporting it following the uplifting involvement of young people.

Now is the time for the UK-wide Conservative Party to embrace this reform too, and to give our educated school-leavers a say in the issues which affect them.

Otherwise, there’s a risk that this could become another wedge between the countries of the UK.

Britain can lead the way on this – and bring our nations’ young people together. Scotland has already shown that when given a chance and a real choice, young people leap at the opportunity to get stuck in to politics. It’s time for a ‘one nation’ franchise – where all young people have an equal voice in our democracy.

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

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