Fridays for Future protest credit: pexels

British young people deserve to be enfranchised

With the current voting age having partisan motivations, it is time for Westminster to follow in Holyrood’s footsteps and allow under 16s to vote

For young people in Scotland, 16 is an important age – you become eligible to vote. The referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 acted as a successful trial for allowing 16 and 17 year olds the opportunity to vote, leading to those aged 16 and over being granted the right to vote in local and Scottish Parliament elections. Notably however, this right is not extended to General Elections or UK-wide referendums.

This is because of who controls enfranchisement. In Scotland and Wales, enfranchisement is a devolved power. The SNP-led Scottish Parliament and the Labour-led Welsh Assembly saw fit to lower the minimum voting age. However, voting rights in England, Northern Ireland and the UK are controlled by Westminster. The Conservative-led UK Parliament has no current plans to lower the voting age below 18. In fact, the Conservative Party has historically opposed such measures.

It seems that where each ruling party lies on the political spectrum will influence their views on extending the franchise. Younger voters tend to vote for more left-wing parties, and so extending the franchise would be against the interests of the Conservatives, who traditionally struggle to gain young voters. Left-leaning parties like Labour and the SNP have much more to gain from delivering Votes at 16, hence why they already have done so in their respectively devolved nations. 

The political motivations of different ruling parties have led to a system where your geographical location and the context in which you are voting decide whether you are enfranchised. This system is both overly complicated and incredibly unfair.

Lack of political engagement and understanding is often cited as a reason the voting age should not be lowered. This excuse has no bones. All the major political parties have a youth wing, and the continuation of these groups shows that the young can and will participate in the political process. With Young Labour having a dedicated Under-18s officer, and the National Youth Parliaments existing as an opportunity for young people to serve their community politically, there is clear evidence that young people want to participate.

It stings, as a young person in Scotland, to receive your letter from the electoral commission, only to be told you cannot have your say in who runs the country. It also must sting to be in one of the two nations in which you cannot vote, knowing that you are more politically engaged and active then many of your elders, but you cannot vote in any respect. 

Whilst it is true that there is a lower voter turnout in 18-24 year olds, this fact is not applicable to those under 18; they are their own group. In fact, 16–17-year-olds had higher voter turnout than the 18-24 category. Furthermore, it is shown that the more you participate when you are younger the more you will when you are older. Enfranchising the young now encourages increased participation in the future.

Overall, reducing the minimum voting age would not lead to drastic change. This new group could help give different parties or movements greater support but the main impact of extending the franchise would be moral. A number of Glasgow University students are under 18. It feels wrong that they can study for a degree, pay rent, even get married or join the military, yet they cannot participate in the democratic process. 16-17 year olds have proven their political capabilities through activism and limited voting capacity around the UK. To deny them the vote because of stereotypes about their age group or political preferences would be anti-democratic.

The conversation around the minimum voting age is perpetual. It comes around repeatedly but rarely has any impact. Catalyst events can change this pattern, as seen with Indyref, and the upcoming General Election could just breathe new fire into the debate. Campaigns like ‘Votes at 16’ will likely use the election for promotion. Scottish and Welsh voters who have been granted the voting right in their nations will be unimpressed by never-ending election coverage for something Westminster will not let them vote for. It is now the time for the UK government to make a change and lower the voting age to 16 to make a difference to the future of our country.

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