Depending on your viewpoint one of the most welcome positives emerging from the Scottish referendum last week was 16 year olds voting for the first time. About 100,000 under 18s registered to vote – 80% of all those eligible. Whilst we do not know the exact numbers voting yet – plenty of us in the youth sector are champing at the bit to find out – the turnout was thought to be high.
The impact of this development has been considerable. It has shone a light on the anomaly of young people being able to get married and join the armed forces but not vote. The political parties have not been slow to seize on this either – Ed Miliband has pledged to include it in Labour’s election manifesto whilst the Lib Dems also back lowering the voting age. A Voting Age bill, sponsored by a Lib Dem peer, has begun its slow passage through first the Lords and then the House of Commons, although its future is far from certain as the Conservatives are likely to oppose it.
Whilst there is a groundswell of opinion it’s important that in getting young people politicised the issue itself does not collapse under the weight of politics.
An exit poll of over 2,000 Scottish voters carried out by conservative peer Lord Ashcroft indicated that 16 and 17 year olds were overwhelmingly saying yes to independence. This contrasted with only 27 per cent of over-65s in the same sample.
These figures demonstrate the issue – young people seem likely to vote for more radical options. This is likely to favour left rather than right wing parties, hence perhaps the Tory reluctance and Labour enthusiasm.
Right now there are also so many debates arising from the referendum – why English MPs should be the only ones to vote on English laws, why Scottish MPs should be prevented from sitting in Westminster, whether there should be an English parliament. The clamour threatens to overshadow a really fundamental unfairness – that Scottish 16 and 17 year olds voted in the referendum but that their counterparts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have never done so, and that the general election in May 2015 will see Scotland’s youth rejoin their disenfranchised peers.
Votes for 16 and 17 year olds is far too important an issue to descend into a party political power struggle. Empowering young people to vote could have a radical impact on politics – politicians would have to listen to them, legislate in their favour and design policy to benefit them. A motivated, engaged electorate, ready to contemplate new ideas and fresh approaches and willing to hold politicians to account with no particular party affiliations – no wonder there’s been such inertia in giving 16 and 17 year olds the vote. Are politicians ready for it?