'We need to have faith in young people – give them the vote at 16'

As England prepares to head to the polls in local elections tomorrow, one college principal makes the case for lowering the voting age

Karen Spencer

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Working in post-16 education, I can see how decisions that other generations take impact significantly on the young people I work with. They are losing out in so many ways compared with other age groups, with increased housing prices, the rising cost of living, the impact of tuition fees and an uncertain financial future that they haven’t voted for.

There are over 1.5 million 16- and 17-year-olds in the UK, and, as young adults, they are expected to take responsibility as citizens, contributing to our economy – but sadly not our democracy. Sixteen-year-olds are expected to pay their tax and National Insurance but cannot elect local and national representatives who decide how it is spent.

They can leave education, work a 40-hour week and become a member of a trade union; they can get married or enter a civil partnership; and they can join the armed forces. As an apprentice, their family will lose rights to certain key benefits – for example, child benefit – and they often have to pay a lot in travel costs on a low wage. They are given these responsibilities without the right to influence the key decisions that affect their everyday lives.

Who says adults are better informed?

I know some people will be against votes at 16 – they often say that young people aren’t old enough to have an informed opinion. On this, I’d call people out. Firstly, we are not allowing them to be children – we expect teenagers to pay adult prices on everything from train tickets to clothing. We expect them to pay taxes and we provide very little in the way of youth services. They can have a baby but they can’t vote. They are able to participate fully in many parts of our society but we deny them the right to cast a ballot in a general election.

Secondly, who says adults are getting things right? There is no evidence that opinions become better informed by age. Adults are just as susceptible to propaganda, through social media and bright catchy slogans. We need to educate people to listen to policies, weigh up the pros and cons and negotiate the vast array of information they are presented with.

When we asked our students at Harlow College what they’d do if they were prime minister for the day, their responses were articulate, fair and well-informed. Their suggestions ranged from providing free school meals, to a review of the minimum wage, through to improved environmental policy. We need to have faith in this generation and allow them to vote for their own futures.

Other countries have given 16-year-olds the right to vote, and the precedent has been set elsewhere in the UK, with young people in Wales being allowed to vote in local elections from this May – bringing them closer in line with Scotland, where 16-year-olds can already vote in Scottish elections.

This isn’t an argument about the politics of "how’" a person will vote but an argument about fairness and democracy.  

Karen Spencer is principal at Harlow College


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