Over the past year or so, the issue of voter age has come to the fore. With minds now focused upon a general election on 12 December, the opportunity to settle this debate for expanding the electorate must be grasped.
In reality, the will for a poll from all sides was such that an amendment to the effect of giving the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds this time around was always a stretch. However, that doesn’t mean that the issue can simply be brushed under the carpet. The youth of today are increasingly engaged. The exhausted old adages that 16-year-olds are not eligible because "they don’t pay tax" or "they’re too impressionable" are as redundant as they are plain wrong.
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Interest in politics
Research into students taking politics at A level and degree-level has shown that interest has spiked since the 2016 EU referendum, with 28.5 per cent and 16.1 per cent increases respectively. This ultimately represents almost 45,000 FE or HE students who elected politics as a study area of choice – therefore you simply can’t say that the interest isn’t there. But that interest isn’t just limited to academia: as a society, we’re seeing a more politically engaged youth, whether that be regarding skills provision, the environment or social equality.
The Luminate Education Group represents around 30,000 students ranging in age from 11 to 84. We educate at secondary, FE and HE level, whilst also being one of the largest apprenticeship providers nationally. Our 16-18 cohort alone accounts for some 6,000 young people, many of whom have been actively involved in campaigning for change on one issue or another. These students come from varied backgrounds, and with bases in areas as diverse as Leeds, Harrogate and Keighley, we play a key role in improving social mobility and raising aspirations amongst all demographics.
When talking about reducing the voting age to 16, it is tempting to look at the student climate strikes, which incited reactions that ranged from adulatory support, through apathy, to anger. But those strikes were simply the tip of the iceberg. Student politics has always held a special role in this country, helping to generate interest and develop ideas. This new interest goes far beyond that and taps into a wider consciousness about contemporary issues.
Political activity has recently heightened and it has been interesting to follow debate from all quarters. Our students have been actively engaged and involved. I was struck by the maturity of debate when a number of our students appeared in two broadcasts earlier this year for the Yorkshire broadcast of the Sunday Politics TV show. In the first of those, a group were interviewed after to watching a European Parliament election debate for our region, and it’s no exaggeration to say that they were more succinct and articulate in their views than those who were standing for office.
Changes in Scotland
Over the years, we’ve seen the call for a reduction in voter age ebb and flow. Latterly, the move has seen broadening support, including particularly consistent calls from Liberal Democrat and Green parties, general favour from Labour and some notable Conservatives, particularly in Scotland, also calling for the paradigm shift. You’ll find that the reasons for these calls are often well-rounded and backed up by analysis, rather than simply a parliamentary trick to favour one over another.
Sixteen-year-olds have been able to vote for their member of Scottish Parliament since 2015 (and also in the 2014 independence referendum, in which an estimated 100,000 16- and 17-year-olds took to the ballots). From a neutral viewpoint, these changes haven’t resulted in problems or a democratic deficit in any measurable way. Instead, they have showed young people that they can, should they so wish, have their voices heard.
Scotland is merely the closest example of how a simple change can empower young people and give them a real say in our future. While the age of 18 is uniform across many nations, there have been moves in many quarters to reduce the age that a citizen is eligible to vote for decades. Countries as diverse as Austria and Brazil have both taken the step, but serious consideration into the matter has also been given in many more places – New Zealand, Canada, even several US states.
The fact is, other than in Scotland, we’ve seen scant regard for electoral reform in the UK since the late 1960s, when voter age was lowered from 21 to 18. Some would argue – I’d say rightly – that, after 50 years, it’s time to take a fresh look and this election provides the obvious platform.
Practically speaking, the issue of voter age isn’t the administrative burden that some are making out. As an education provider, we’ve already taken steps to support our students who choose to register, and student unions have been active in encouraging our students to consider their options. Most local authority websites responsible for the electoral role make it abundantly clear that voters are eligible to register from the age of 16 onwards.
Interest from young people is a trend we’re seeing replicated nationally. There are an estimated 1.4 million 16- and 17-year-olds in the country. At present, none of them has been able to partake in any major political decision this century, yet their lives are being so demonstrably impacted by policy.
The argument that they are too immature to form reasoned opinion just doesn’t stand up to any degree of scrutiny. Much has been made of our increasingly "woke" society; well, it is time for political leaders to wake up to the fact that a young person’s view is just as valid as any of our own. It isn’t simply a numbers game.
Bill Jones is deputy chief executive of Luminate Education Group