Amidst the media frenzy following Rishi Sunak’s announcement of plans to introduce national service for all 18-year-olds, Keir Starmer delivered an alternative pitch to young people: an extension of the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds.

A Way for Labour to ‘Fix’ Elections?

Predictably, the initial reaction to the proposed policy announcement has been mixed. Commentators on the left welcomed the potential extension of the franchise to an additional 1.5 million voters. Those on the right however, such as former Conservative leader Ian Duncan-Smith, scoffed at the proposal, calling the policy nothing more than ‘a gimmick done by those who think their party is more likely to get the vote’.

Labour has fiercely denied claims of gerrymandering, pointing out that three of the past four prime ministers have been elected by a franchise that includes voters as young as fifteen — as Conservative Party leadership elections allow all members to vote regardless of age.

Party differences aside, what is arguably most important for Starmer’s policy to succeed is educational reform, which must include some form of political education to equip young voters with the information needed to cast their vote in an informed and unimpressionable manner.

Young & Impressionable

Starmer announced his intention to follow Scotland and Wales in lowering the voting age to 16 while campaigning in Staffordshire. According to the Labour leader: ‘If you can work, if you can pay tax, if you can serve in your armed forces, then you should be able to vote.’

If the proposed policy comes to fruition, it would be the first extension of the franchise in the UK in 55 years, and the appeal to Labour is clear. As with any extension of the franchise, the policy is progressive in its nature but not unique.

In the past decade, lowering the voting age to sixteen has become an increasingly popular policy idea among Europe’s left-leaning parties. The extension of the franchise was passed in Scotland in 2014, ahead of the Independence referendum; in Wales in 2020 for Senedd elections; and across multiple Western European states such as Germany, Belgium, Austria, Greece, and Malta earlier this year in a move aimed at curbing the wave of far-right nationalism sweeping the European elections.

Interestingly, studies show that unlike 18-24-year-olds, 16 and 17-year-olds are highly impressionable and will often duplicate their parent’s voting preference. Along with increased impressionability, this younger age group disproportionately receives their news from social media sites like TikTok and Instagram, where misinformation and radical conspiracy theories often run rife due to a lack of regulation and fact-checking. This has opened the door for populist, radical-right politicians such as French National Rally leader Jordan Bardella, helping him to gain immense traction among young voters with one recent survey polling him at 36 per cent support among voters under 24. Short, snappy, unnuanced videos on contentious, primarily social issues such as migration and security have led to him gaining 1.2 million followers on TikTok.

Ultimately, while lowering the voting age may have been introduced to stem the tidal wave of support for populist, Eurosceptic parties across the continent, the policy has somewhat backfired — though arguably largely owing to young people’s lack of political education. 

Legitimate Concerns

Concerns regarding extending the franchise to an age bracket mostly still living at home with their parents and in full-time education, with a short supply of real-world experience, are all legitimate and explain the opposition to lowering the voting age to sixteen.

While Starmer should be wary of this, he must also see it as an opportunity to increase political engagement among young people and strengthen our democratic institutions by introducing a compulsory Democracy and Government GCSE into the school curriculum.

At a period when youth disenfranchisement is at an all-time high, and democracy is being threatened by hostile, authoritarian sources, an unbiased, foundational education on the workings of government, the strengths of democracy, and a basic, balanced outlining of various political ideologies and their origins has never been more needed.

Such an education would surely quell any remaining doubt over the ability of teenagers to make informed political decisions, while also providing them with a safe space to learn and develop their own political beliefs away from the hostile and fiercely partisan social media environment we now live in.

A call to reform the curriculum will likely revive backlash from the usual media sources. However, if Starmer truly believes in making this extension of the franchise work, there would be no greater way to strengthen and solidify our democratic processes and institutions than to introduce a baseline political education into the curriculum.

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