Angela Smith on why it’s time to let 16 and 17 year olds play a full part in the democratic process
"Women do not have the experience to be able to vote”, said Lord Curzon back in 1912.
It is difficult to believe that statements like that were used to justify the denial of the right to vote to women. Over a century later, we find ourselves in the same position when replacing the word “women” with “16 and 17 year olds”. Today, at Report stage of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, the House of Lords has an opportunity to make sure that we are on the right side of the argument, and on the right side of history.
Labour and Liberal Democrat Peers have come together on an amendment to lower the voting age for all local government elections to 16. A win today will of course complement the debates taking place elsewhere – in the Commons, in the media and in the country – on doing the same for the EU referendum that the government has promised by 2017.
Our Party is proud to support giving young people the right to vote, especially when considering the profound effects the results of elections and referenda may have on their futures. Currently, 16 and 17 year olds are able to enter work or training, give full consent to medical treatment, get married, join the armed forces, become a director of a company – the list goes on.
With all of this in mind, I find it incomprehensible that the Prime Minister is unwilling to change his position, even with the threat of losing both today’s vote and a similar one on the EU Referendum Bill once it reaches the Lords. Sending a signal out to young people that they don’t understand politics is not only patronising, but also abandons our responsibility to improve citizenship education in schools.
The referendum in Scotland last year showed a clear surge in interest from young voters, who campaigned, debated and engaged in a significant and historic event, the ramifications of which continue to be felt. For anyone who says that young people don’t care, evidence from the Electoral Commission counters this profoundly. Over 100,000 16 to 17 year olds registered, with 75% voting on the day. And when asked whether they would vote in future referendums or elections, the result was an overwhelming yes.
Whether for local elections, national elections or referenda on matters of historic importance, their voices should be heard. Denying them a say in whether Britain remains part of the EU will hinder the results from truly reflecting the effects that a potential change could have, and neglect consideration of the impact a change could have on young people’s futures.
Eddie Cochran sang of his problems in the 1958 hit Summertime Blues: “Well I called my congressman and he said ‘I'd like to help you son but you're too young to vote’". Today in the Lords, with a simple amendment to the local government aspects of the Representation of the People Act, we can start to change that. And in doing so, we can also begin to inspire a new generation to play their full part in the democratic process.
Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon
Published 15th July 2015