current affairs

Voting age in the UK: Should it finally be reduced to 16?

Should the voting age be reduced in the UK?

Should the voting age be reduced in the UK? Having stumbled across a Radio 4 programme where this debate was genuinely being given the time of day, it’s fairly clear that the question nobody was asking is suddenly on the agenda.
For many years, the UK Youth Parliament (a body of young people elected by their peers to represent them at a local, regional, and national level) has been divided over this issue, with support for and against changing from year to year. On one hand, the age old rhetoric of being “mature enough to leave home, go out to work and pay …taxes” is often reiterated.  James Evans, a member of the Youth Parliament for the South East region argued this in the House of Commons in 2009. In his words, “At 16, we can marry our MP, we can sleep with our MP and we can have children with our MP. We can sign up in preparation for fighting and potentially dying for our MP and suddenly we are not mature enough to vote for them.” 

On the other hand, politics is a serious business. In this country, we have a clear absence of quality political education due to a misshapen and inadequate citizenship syllabus. How can we expect young people to vote effectively and with clear decisions if we don’t teach them the difference between left-wing and right, Labour and Conservative, socialism and capitalism? Young people are woefully unprepared to vote, young people are disengaged from current affairs discourse in the UK and research in 2008 showed over a third of young people feel politics didn’t affect them. Times have changed, and now young people realise politics affects them but are proactively ignored by government, clearly demonstrated through the cuts programme of recent years and the infamous tuition fees scandal. Thousands of students marching the streets of London did nothing to get the voices of young people heard, and the feelings of the younger generation did not penetrate the walls of Westminster.

In comparison to the previous election, showed a 7% increase in voters aged 18-24 turning out to general elections with a near even spread between the  Conservative Party and the Labour Party. Notoriously, in the Sheffield Hallam constituency (and others), young student voters were turned away and denied their right to vote due to mismanaged administration. Of course, this desire to engage with society was not rewarded with a recount or any other attempt to correct mistakes made; it was simply brushed under the mat after several days’ worth of filler coverage for 24hr news channels. Young voters are not treated with respect, instead we are patronised with BBC3 shows mimicking real political debate with token celebrities because it is assumed we won’t be interested in politics unless we’ve seen the speaker singing or dancing on reality television. A real desire to include and involve young people would not see a separationist policy in common culture but instead a sincere inclusion on the political agenda, alongside issues such as health, transport, and the economy and genuinely included in those issues. When debate is not divided into ‘young people’s sexual health’, or ‘under 18’s travel’, we have evidenced of a maturing in society that prepares to accept all members, irrespective of an accepted ageism that forms the status quo.

A reduction in the voting age does not, in this case, include this. The decision to involve young people in the Scottish referendum is a move which many claim will set a precedent for a lower voting age outright. Currently, 16 and 17yr olds north of the border will only be able to vote in the referendum but it has widely been seen as a ‘win’ for Alex Salmond MP because the floodgates are opening. The government’s position is weakening; how can one allow a person to vote in one election but not another? Democracy is a universal privilege, and withdrawing aspects and rights to vote based on diplomacy is a weak foundation for any government. How can one effectively weigh the significance of the referendum against the daily running of a country? It is an untenable position to be in.

Unfortunately, the government has strayed into treacherous waters – very few countries in the world have a voting age of 16, the vast majority have it set at 18. In Brazil, 16-18yr olds can vote voluntarily and voting is compulsory in above that age until the age of 70. Perhaps this is a compromise we could look into? When looking to the international community for solutions one must take note – there are more countries with a voting age above 18 than there are countries with a voting age of 16. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assert lowering the voting age separates our position from the international community.

The voting age should not be reduced in the UK, but a foundation is being paved. With that in mind, the road to political engagement should be paved with better education, sincere respect for young people, a desire to listen, and perhaps a touch of humility. Young people are not a checkbox; they are a powerful political force. Early inclusion is early intervention, breaking a cycle of chronic disengagement and disaffection in the UK.