MPs have got it wrong: let 16 year olds vote in EU referendum

Kettle Mag, Lucy Pegg, EU referendum, votes for under 18
Written by Lucy1103

Once again, by not allowing 16 and 17 year olds the opportunity to vote in the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, the House of Commons has got it wrong. Whatever MPs may say, young people – even those under 18 – should be given a voice within the debate on Europe; after all, we’re the ones who’ll have to live in it.

Should 16 years olds get the vote?

In fact, 16 and 17 year olds should be able to vote in all elections, not just the EU referendum. At 16 you can have sex, get married, and have a full-time job, but you still aren’t able to vote. Surely people who are deemed mature enough to do all these other things are also capable of expressing their political opinion. But in the case of the EU poll, it’s even more pressing that teenagers are given a say. The last public referendum on EU membership was in 1975, long before any 16 year olds were alive, let alone thinking about politics.

Before the current EU frenzy kicked off, I hadn’t even realised the public had ever been given a choice about our involvement with Europe, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that ignorance. For young people – or me anyway – the EU seems like a far off, abstract institution, the butt of jokes about wrongly shaped bananas and “health and safety gone mad”. But after turning 18, the first election I could vote in was 2014’s European election; being involved in the EU electoral process made me seek out information on what MEPs could really do, and choosing who I would send off to represent my region grounded the EU in my own decision making – even if my vote didn’t end up being for the winning parties. By actively seeking out 16 and 17 year old’s votes, the government would be embracing them and their views, showing them that the EU is an institution that they as individuals have a stake in.

Political self-interest

But instead of doing this, MPs – or Conservative ones anyway – have elected to keep the out-of-date age barrier in place. I believe that behind the decision, as much as anything else, lies fear. Many politicians are scared of change and scared of the wave of new voices that extending the franchise would bring. The BBC reported that the government believed it would ‘be wrong to alter the “tried and tested” general election franchise for a single poll’, showing their reluctance to change a system which has repeatedly given them power. Just as with their opposition to electoral reform, self-interest is stopping the Conservatives from moving politics forward.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the party opposing votes for 16 and 17 year olds is the one which is the least likely to receive their support. Young people are typically more left-leaning than their elders, thus more likely to vote for parties like Labour, the Greens or the SNP – all of whom supported the extension of the franchise to 16 year olds. The Tories know that if the voting age was lowered for this referendum it would set a precedent for other elections, and they are unwilling to let parties of the left gain any more votes when the general election comes around in 2020. Instead they will remain in their stuffy world of tradition, protecting the pension pots of the loyal elderly population and closing their eyes to the views of people whose future this referendum will affect the most.

Undermining Tuesday’s decision further is the evidence that 16 and 17 year olds will vote if given the opportunity to do so. In last year’s Scottish referendum there was a 75% turn out rate amongst 16 and 17 year olds, impressive given that overall only 66.1% of potential voters took part in this year’s general election. People assume there is apathy amongst the young, but once involved teenagers are all too likely to prove the critics wrong. There’s no reason why an EU referendum couldn’t be just as popular amongst 16 year olds if they were simply given the chance to get involved.

A clear choice

To me, it seems clear, simple and obvious that 16 and 17 year olds should be allowed to vote in a referendum on the future of the EU; because after all it’s their future even more than it’s the future of the MPs who blocked their chance to vote. Our political system needs to engage itself with young people if it is to remain representative and relevant, yet seems determined to miss every opportunity it is given to move in this direction.

Do you think 16 year olds should be given the vote? Let us know in the comments below!