>Votes at 16

>This article was written for and published in the Devil’s Advocate column of The Co-operative Re:act magazine in September 2010.


1. Young people are instinctively left-leaning. The Co-operative Group is only supporting this campaign because they are beholden to the Labour party, who also want to reduce the voting age.

Recent research in a new pre-election report ‘The New Frontier’ by the thinktank Demos found that 16 and 17 year olds are slightly more inclined to support Labour and, to a lesser extent, the Liberal Democrats than older people. 41 per cent of 16/17 year olds would vote Labour, 30 per cent Conservative and 21 per cent Liberal Democrat. This contrasts to the 18+ population, where 36 per cent plumped for the Conservatives and 31 and 19 per cent chose Labour and the Lib Democrats, respectively.

The research also found that compared to people over 18, 16 and 17 year olds tend to be more positive about the performance of political leaders while holding similar opinions to other age groups on the prospect of Britain’s economic recovery.

However, the political inclinations of young people are simply not a motivating factor in The Co-operative’s support for Votes at 16. We are seeking cross-party support for lowering the voting age. The aim of the campaign, which is part of our Inspiring Young People programme, is to support young people to change their world through active citizenship, helping them shape the decisions made today that will define their future. Our belief is that lowering the voting age, combined with strong citizenship education, will energise young people to better engage in society, shift public policy from legislating ‘for’ to ‘with’ young people, and boost democratic and parliamentary renewal.

2. While young people are energetic and idealistic, they are incapable of understanding the broader issues they would be voting on.

There is variation in the political maturity and understanding of 16 and 17 year olds, but the same is true for people aged 18 and over. In the past two years nearly a million young people have voted in UK Youth Parliament elections. Advances in education, youth engagement, 24-hour instant communication and news, and increasing responsibilities for younger people strongly suggest that a significant proportion of 16 and 17 year olds are able to articulate an informed view of UK political affairs.

Women finally won universal suffrage in 1928 – 61 years after John Stuart Mill first proposed an amendment to the Representation of the People Bill which would extend the right to vote to women. Over this time many argued that women were too innocent and naïve for the world of politics and that their husbands knew what was in their best interests. Many of the arguments put forward today denying 16 and 17 year olds the vote are the same as those put forward in the past to deny women the vote. Applying this attitude to young people is just as patronising today as it was to women in the last century.

3. Young people aged 18 to 24 already show a depressing apathy toward voting. Why should people even younger be any better?

The exclusion of 16 and 17 year olds from elections is fuelling the disengagement of 18-24 year olds. The longer young people are denied involvement in the formal democratic process, the less chance there is of ever engaging them.

This is the first generation of voters who have ever had to study our democracy, our electoral system and the importance of voting. Today’s 16 and 17 year olds have had more opportunity to be informed of voting than most current voters.

In 2002, citizenship was introduced as a compulsory subject as part of the English National Curriculum. At Key Stage 3 young people are taught about the electoral system and the importance of voting, central and local government, and the key characteristics of parliamentary and other forms of government. At Key Stage 4 they explore, among other things, the actions citizens can take in democratic and electoral processes to influence decisions locally, nationally and beyond; and the operation of parliamentary democracy within the UK; and of other forms of government, both democratic and non-democratic, beyond the UK. Following this education, young people are denied the right to use their knowledge for at least two further years and anywhere up to seven years. Lowering the voting age to 16 would allow a seamless transition from learning about voting, elections and democracy to putting such knowledge into practice

4. No representation without taxation. Votes at 16 campaigners point out that 16 year olds are old enough to pay taxes or join the armed forces, but most do not. You can’t have it both ways.

The Office of National Statistics reports that 380 thousand 16 and 17 year olds are in some form of employment.[1] In 20008, the Department for Work and Pensions estimates that in the previous decade the total tax liability for 16 and 17 year olds was over £550 million pounds.[2]

According to the Ministry of Defence there are currently more than three and a half thousand 16 and 17 year olds serving in the armed forces (810 16 year olds and 2700 17 year olds).[3] You can apply to join the British Army at 15 years, 7 months and the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force at 15 years, 9 months. Most young people sign up to four year contracts, and so at the age of 16 they are considered able to make a decision that could well see them on active service in a couple of years time.

In the early years of the 21st century, it is time to enfranchise all citizens who pay income tax, shoulder the responsibilities of company directors, become husbands and wives, and fight for their country.


[1] ONS (2010) Labour market statistics Table 2 Employment by age (Feb – Apr 2010) http://www.statistics.gov.uk/pdfdir/lmsuk0610.pdf p22

[2] Personal Correspondence to Children’s Rights Alliance for England from Department of Work and Pensions (15th May 2008) based on 563,000 taxpayers aged 16 and 17 in Financial Year 05/06. Figures are based on analysis from Survey of Personal Incomes (2005-06). Note, this is a sample survey based on information held by HMRC tax offices on persons who could be liable to UK tax. It is carried out annually and covers the income assessable for tax in each tax year. The figures for the past decade are indicative as changes in sampling methodology can affect results.


[3] Personal Corresponded to British Youth Council from the Ministry of Defence, July 2010
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