January, the House of Commons voted 119-49 in favour of extending the right to vote in elections and referenda to 16 and 17 year olds at the first reading of the bill presented by Stephen Williams, Liberal Democrat MP for Bristol West.
Lowering the voting age has been a hot topic of debate, albeit never quite leading the priority list, in recent years. However, with the decision to grant Scottish 16 and 17 year olds a say over the future of their country in the forthcoming 2014 Autumn independence referendum, youth groups all over the UK – led by the British Youth Council (www.byc.org.uk) – have spent months lobbying MPs to the cause. While Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond may have his own reasons for wanting younger voters to be included in the referendum, he has certainly left the door open to further progress.
That the motion won such support at a first reading is an achievement in itself, considering there is only one country that has seriously debated (and went on to accept) votes at 16 – Austria. Alongside the decision over the Scottish referendum, with youth interest in politics at an all-time high and increased youth activism in recent years over issues such as the EMA, there has never been a stronger argument in favour of lowering the voting age.
For many years, arguments of youth apathy & lack of knowledge were employed to defend the 18+ status quo (in place since it was lowered from 21 in 1969). However with UK Youth Parliament and British Youth Council elections attracting more votes in some districts than the adult equivalents, this defense has withered. The council has called on political parties to do more to reach out to 16 & 17 year olds to address these concerns. Mark Kidson, the Youth Council spokesman said:
“We call on them to involve and engage more young people in the issues that affect them and respond to their interests when campaigning in elections. Apathy is not inevitable: use us or lose us’.
With sizeable cross party support partly thanks to pressure from their own youth wings, supporters are cautiously optimistic about the second reading of the bill, due to take place on March 1st, none more so than Stephen Williams himself who said:
“The time has come for a vital step in the renewal of Britain’s democracy. Time to let another one and a half million people take part in voting for the people who run the country. Giving the right to vote to sixteen and seventeen year olds now has widespread support across the political spectrum.”
Shout Out will be closely following the last few weeks of campaigning and lobbying ahead of the second reading, so keep up to date via the website www.shoutoutuk.org and our twitter feed @shoutoutuk
BY: Andrew Hill