Why 16 and 17-year-olds must be given a say in the EU referendum

As MPs vote on a crucial amendment, the TUC says no taxation without representation


The TUC believes that everyone with an interest in the UK’s membership of the European Union should get a vote in the EU referendum likely to happen next year. Young people will live longest with whatever decision is made, so it makes no sense to keep them from having a say.

MPs originally rejected an opposition amendment proposing votes for 16 and 17-year-olds when they debated the EU Referendum Bill in the Commons, but a new amendment was subsequently passed in the Lords to include it. Today MPs will consider that amendment and other changes made in the Lords – choosing to either accept it or refuse and send their decision back to the Lords to think again.

We’re calling on MPs today to vote to accept the House of Lords’ amendment and give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote.

Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, has said that:

“The EU referendum will seal the fate of the next generation of workers. It will affect their workplace rights, their opportunity to work in other EU countries and the future industrial policy and supply of jobs in the UK. It would be wrong to tell today’s 16 and 17-year-olds that this decision about their future will be made without them.”

There are several other reasons why 16 and 17-year-olds should get the vote on this and other crucial decisions about their future.

There’s a long tradition – the American War of Independence was fought over it – of no taxation without representation. 16 and 17-year-olds are old enough to go to work, pay income taxes and national insurance, even get married and join the armed forces. They should be allowed a say in the decisions their taxes fund and their work contributes to.

While there are some restrictions on what 16 and 17-year-olds can do, these mostly relate to protecting them from harm. Being allowed to vote doesn’t fit that criterion, so it’s difficult to justify without claiming that people at this age aren’t capable of exercising the judgment needed to vote (not that older people have to prove that either!)

And finally, 16 and 17-year-olds have shown they’re up for it, in the Scottish Referendum last year. People may have disagreed with how they voted – it’s a democracy, right? But young Scots showed enthusiasm and readiness to take on their civic responsibilities, and we believe that English, Welsh and Northern Irish 16-and 17-year-olds should be able to join them.

The government has argued that, rather than extend the franchise only for the EU Referendum, there should be a national debate about whether the franchise should be extended to 16 and 17-year-olds for all votes. We say ‘bring it on’ – the TUC has been in favour of extending the franchise wholesale since 1999, when today’s 16-year-olds were born!

You can make your voice known by joining the campaign for votes at 16, and signing the European Movement’s petition on the No 10 website. And, of course, by tweeting your support using #votesat16.

Owen Tudor is the head of European Union and International Relations at the TUC

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.

12 Responses to “Why 16 and 17-year-olds must be given a say in the EU referendum”

  1. truthtellerteller

    Changing the vote to 16 year olds is a basic fix of the vote & a desperate attempt to get a stay in vote, we need consistent law so if they want to give 16 year olds the vote it should be for all elections not just the EU referendum because it will give them the result they want

    Join Leave.EU- https://leave.eu/en/user/register

    Leave.EU facebook- https://www.facebook.com/leaveeuofficial

  2. Selohesra

    Many young people are naïve and idealistic & have yet to pay exorbitant levels of tax or realize that Labour’s magic money tree is just a euphermism for trying to extort more of other peoples money. It makes no sense to give them a vote in the referendum or indeed any other important election. Personally I would raise voting age to 25 & give a weighting to our votes based on the level of tax you contribute to the country each year. The more you pay the more votes you get – it might discourage tax avoidance & make our politicians understand who is paying the bills.

  3. wj

    Two things:

    Yes, 16/17 year olds were given the vote in the Scottish referendum in the hope that they would push the Nats over the line to independence – it didn’t work. There is no reason to believe that the 16/17 year olds will follow the TUC line and keep the UK in the EU; what the writer is relying on is the student/Labour supporter contingent – he ignores the thousands who have been trodden under and excluded by the EU’s neoliberal and corporatist policies, and who are not brainwashed by any attachment to university or the Labour movement.

    The second thing to say is – where were Owen Tudor and his buddies when the Lisbon Treaty was being imposed upon us all, nobody, let alone 16/17 year olds, was allowed a say on that.

    Democracy’s OK if it works in Mr Tudor’s and his buddies favour, if it doesn’t – change the people.

  4. andagain

    If they are not old enough to be allowed to leave school, how can they be old enough to be allowed to vote?

  5. Mark Myword

    Come on Mr Tudor, your case is weak. Payment of tax is not age dependent, child actors pay tax even if they are younger than 16. But this is a dangerous road to go down anyway. If payment of tax entitles you to vote, do those in poverty, who do not pay tax, lose their right to vote? Be careful where you go. There is an age at which the state declares you to be an adult – that is 18 at present. Everything I have seen of public policy in recent years is to emphasise that 16 and 17 years olds are still children.

  6. Neil Wilson

    The liberal left are rather obsessed with the ‘tax as subscription’ argument. A very dangerous road to take when lifting poorer people out of tax completely should be the progressive agenda.

    It is a particularly silly argument when you understand that Tax for Revenue is an Obsolete Concept. http://www.3spoken.co.uk/2015/07/taxes-for-revenue-are-obsolete-precis.html

  7. Owen Tudor

    I know that people aren’t required to actually read articles on the web before commenting on them, but suggestions that the TUC wants 16 and 17 year olds to have the vote because we think they will vote a particular way sort of ignore the fact that (a) I specifically indicate in the article that how people vote is separate from whether they should have a vote and (b) I specifically indicate in the article that we have supported their right to vote since 1999. Unless you believe we thought we could predict how people could vote before they were even born, you might have to accept that we believe that 16 and 17 year olds should have the vote because it’s the right thing to do.

  8. CGR

    Children must not be given the vote !!!

  9. wj

    Owen – you’re on the wrong side of the street:


  10. politics hud

    Hi Owen, interesting piece but I think you might be guilty of simplifying a rather more complex situation by rehearsing some well-worn but contentious claims (as some of the respondents here have noted). I would be interested on your thoughts on this piece I published recently – http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexitvote/2015/12/03/learning-to-vote-dont-start-with-a-referendum/

  11. Mike Stallard

    Dear Owen,
    Absolutely right. Of course the wee things should be able to vote. And why stop there? Why not Primary School children too? After all, “It would be wrong to tell today’s 11 and 12-year-olds that this decision about their future will be made without them.” They are quite ably to put a cross on a paper – or maybe, the ones who find writing hard could perhaps have a postal vote? And they will pay even more taxes during their lifetime than 16 year olds will.

  12. Mike Stallard

    Actually what is wrong – in theory at least – with not allowing people who do not contribute to take part in something for which they have not paid? I mean, season tickets for the Premier League have to be paid for – why not votes too?

Leave a Reply