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Votes for 16 year olds – an early contender for manifestos?

With House of Lords reform and changes to the electoral system both on the back burner, the age of suffrage might yet become a front line constitutional issue. Whether or not to give votes to 16-year-olds is hardly likely to swing the election, but the possibility of change is creeping closer. The argument is, though, at best partly convincing.

As we head into 2013, the three main parties will all be looking to generate ideas which will eventually stock their manifestos as campaign pledges. While economics will again dominate, constitutional issues will appear in at least the Labour and Lib Dem agendas.

The 2010 election saw these two parties offer their own brand of constitutional change as a means of refreshing politics. Ambitions for the Upper House and the Alternative Vote eventually foundered in the Coalition and may not be put before the voters in 2015.

Votes for 16-year-olds never made it that far, although the Lib Dems had a firm proposal, while Labour promised a free vote. There is no reason to think the idea has gone away – in fact it seems to be gaining ground.

For some, the recent agreement between Alex Salmond and David Cameron allowing 16 and 17-year-olds north of the border a vote in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 shows the direction of travel.

In a Westminster Hall debate this week, Labour MP for Sunderland Central, Julie Elliott, argued that it “would be wrong to send the message that it is right for some of the UK’s 16 and 17-year-olds to be deemed capable of voting while others are not.”

While the UK ponders, other countries are leading the way. Just last month, Argentina voted to lower its voting age to 16; a move which will bring it in line with other Latin American countries.

In the EU, Austria, Slovenia, Norway and even Germany, albeit only in state elections, all carry similar provisions. The British Crown Dependencies of the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey do too.

Change is therefore imaginable, but the case still has to be heard.

Fairness is the stronger argument for the change.

The Votes at 16 campaign argues that 16-year-olds can pay income tax, consent to sexual relationships, become a director of a company and even join the armed forces. Granting 16-year-olds the vote would, goes the argument, align their responsibilities with their rights as citizens.

However, the second argument used in favour of a change is that it will increase engagement. This is less convincing.

A Yougov poll in 2009 showed that 54% of 14-25 year-olds were against the idea. The Youth Citizen Commission concluded, also in 2009, that the voting age is not the principal factor in encouraging young people’s involvement in politics and citizenship.

Ultimately, if politicians throw their weight behind votes at 16, they will eventually face even greater challenges to excite and engage a new section of the electorate.

Written By

Michael Hawes