One policy that the Green Party advances, that may not be well known to wider audiences, is that we want the voting age reduced to 16. The current age at which people are legally entitled to cast their vote in general, local and European elections, not forgetting referenda, is 18. This all means that whilst large numbers of young adults go through the further education system after taking GCSEs, or begin to work full time and pay taxes, and whilst their minds are perhaps at one of the most receptive stages in their lives, they have no say in the choices we as a nation make through elected representatives. In other words, young people, as is all too common, are marginalised by wider society. Lowering the voting age will ease this problem.
In March was Votes at 16 Week, where young people and politicians made the case for 16-year-olds to get the vote. I have certainly lent my support to the campaign, as have other politicians around the country, but it has not exactly attracted a very big media presence. The lack of media attention on this campaign is a shame, and an opportunity missed for pressuring our politicians to make our electoral system fairer.
So, why should 16-year-olds get the vote? There are numerous reasons, the first being that they are taxed on income, just as people over the age of 18 are. This is a great perversity. Taxation revenue, collected by the government, goes to provide services for our country, pays for politicians’ expenses, and allows us to waste it on dodgy wars in the Middle East. So 16-year-olds have to pay tax, yet get no say in how their money, aggregated with every other taxpayer’s in the country, is spent. What’s more, it contributes to paying those who they cannot elect! This is a bizarre arrangement, and underlines why the Votes at 16 campaign argues for ‘no taxation without representation’.
Secondly, the arguments that 16-year-olds are too immature, too stupid or will make unwise political choices are espoused when trying to silence those who call for a lowering of the voting age. This is a very poor argument. 16-year-olds can legally marry, can join the armed forces and decide to leave school and seek employment, all of which are very important decisions for anybody to be making. If 16-year-olds are immature, why are they allowed to marry and join the defence forces of our country, but cannot decide who they want to run our country? The situation sounds unfair, and it is!
So there are good reasons why 16-year-olds should get the vote. After all, if politicians want political engagement in this country, allowing those who are interested in the world a right to say what happens in a country is a good first step. But what are politicians doing?
Well, for 13 years nothing changed in terms of the voting age under the Labour governments of Blair and Brown. They may have lowered the age of sexual consent for homosexual sex to 16 but they forgot to lower the age at which people can vote. Seemingly, choosing to have sex is not as important a choice as choosing who represents you in Parliament.
The Tories are never normally known for their departure from tradition and in terms of allowing 16-year-olds to vote, they are not bringing such a change forward in this Parliament (though their proposal to allow LGBT couples to marry is a very much welcomed move away from ‘tradition’).
The Greens have always advocated votes at 16 and still continue to do so. In 2010, Caroline Lucas MP voted for a motion to change this (Division 79).
The Lib Dems are committed, by their manifesto, to lowering the voting age to 16. Of course, they have not been known to stick too steadfastly to pre-election promises, as young people discovered when tuition fees suddenly tripled in 2011. In the vote in 2010, it is therefore disappointing, but not entirely surprising, to see many Lib Dems voting against the motion to lower the voting age – including Julian Huppert, MP for my own city, Cambridge. I asked him about this on Twitter, but he claimed that the Lib Dems had dropped the call for a lowering of voting age in order to save the AV referendum bill – something that was a considerable cop-out in terms of a decent alternative to First Past the Post anyway. There were quite a few Lib Dems who voted this way: Clegg, Cable, Campbell and Kennedy being four big stand-out names. Yet some Lib Dems have lent their support to the campaign this week, such as Jo Swinson, who felt so strongly about this cause in 2010 that she decided not to vote at all on the bill.
So the Lib Dems maintain their position of saying one thing and doing another, whilst Labour and the Tories do precious little. Young people have been let down time and again by these three usual suspects. As a party, the Greens have consistently argued for a lower, fairer voting age, and have voted consistently in this regard, in the UK and in Europe.
Thus, it is worth remembering that a large swathe of the population of the UK does not have a say in how their taxes are used and how their country is run, and the political elite in the UK are not supporting them. Young people are often pushed to one side and forgotten, but they really shouldn’t be. They are, after all, the future of the country, not an inconvenience for the current gaggle of politicians to get around whilst pursuing “careers” in spending our money.
Votes at 16 have created an e-petition for people to sign, located here: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/28