Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

We need radical reform to revive our democracy

While we do not yet know the exact date of the referendum on our membership of the European Union, it is clear that the outcome of this vote will affect Britain for many years to come.

I will be campaigning to stay in the EU, as I strongly believe that this is best for our economic prosperity, national security and society.

But I will also be fighting for the government to give 16- and 17-year-olds their say in this once-in-a-generation decision. After all, the vote to stay or remain in the EU will not just affect people aged 18 and over. Sixteen- and 17-year-old workers enjoy the protection of EU employment laws; many of them are employed in some of the millions of British jobs linked to our EU membership; and can live and study aboard as part of the EU’s Erasmus programme.

Despite all this Tory members of parliament have, once again, shamefully lined up to stop young people having their say in this referendum. They recycled all the same old arguments that 16- and 17-year-olds are irresponsible and are incapable of taking important decisions. This is complete and utter rubbish.

If 16- and 17-year-olds are irresponsible then why, under the law, do we believe them mature enough to rent accommodation, get married, give consent to medical treatment, claim benefits, and join the armed forces?

If 16- and 17-year-olds are incapable of taking important decisions then how do you explain the huge level of engagement and turnout among empowered young people in the Scottish referendum?

This out-of-touch Tory government cannot see that most 16- and 17-year-olds today are passionate about their community and their futures. Our young people have more responsibilities and knowledge than ever before, and are extremely engaged with the issues and causes that matter most to them.

Some opponents to votes at 16 argue that not all young people are politically active, this is of course true, but then neither are all 40-, 50- or 60-year olds. And no one, quite rightly, is suggesting that they should not be allowed to have their say.

Later today, Labour peers in the House of Lords will, once again, make a stand on this important issue. I am proud of their work on this and they have my full support. In the Commons we will continue to do all we can to ensure that 16- and 17-year-olds are able to join the debate and have their say on the future of our country.

All of this goes to the heart of a wider issue – public apathy with politicians and our political system. We need radical reform to revive our democracy. Giving 16- and 17-year-olds a vote in the EU referendum is an important first step. But I do not just support votes at 16 for referendums, I want it for all future elections. I also want better political education in our schools, more resources for voter registration, and reform of our voting system to a system of proportional representation.


Chuka Umunna MP is a former shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills. He tweets @ChukaUmunna


Photo: myklroventine

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Chuka Umunna MP

is shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills


  • Of course, the millions of jobs will still be there if we leave a political union with the EU – we could still be in the EEA, and our students can still take part in Erasmus – Switzerland and Iceland do so.

    I’m a bit peeved that 16 year olds can’t enjoy a beer, or maybe responsibility doesn’t extend that far.

  • I don’t remember Chuka Umunna, and his colleagues, doing much to harness the voices of those FAILED by political decision making – post recession? Maybe, that is a different kind of democracy we’ve come o expect from our politicians, and the outdated system they continue to fail the public with.
    Also, it seems clear that by giving younger voices the opportunity to vote, this will increase voting turnout – nothing to do with democracy. Democracy for many is about “champions” who are bold when confronting and tackling failure, vulnerability and aspirations – I just don’t see this correlation of objectives from our politicians, including Chuka Umunna. All I do see are politicians keen to make their failed policies and unviable political system CREDIBLE in the face of ALL that is wrong.
    Chuka Umunna, you are no different than the rest of them – most certainly no “champion” for political change itself. After all, when did MPs ever have any legal or statutory obligation to represent anybody, when were they ever tested for what they achieve for constituents, and why don’t we have a political Ombudsman that gives a voice to complaints of constituents? Is this the Great Democratic system you refer to Chuka?

  • In the linked article in The Independent, by Chuka Ummuna and Jonathan Reynolds, they appear to suggest an Additional Member proportional system as their favoured option. However, this is an inferior system, when compared to Single Transferable Vote because it imposes a secondary list of candidates, chosen by the Party and is therefore inherently less democratic.

    It is one way of attempting to impose certain candidates, who may not be by a particularly favoured by the Labour membership, just as some have been parachuted into safe seats, against the will of the local CLP! This may be why it is being suggested, given that some individuals may, as a result of their recent behaviour, have lessened their chances of re-election, if STV was to be used instead?

  • Be honest you’re just pandering to a demographic because the young voters are required to replace those which have been lost and won’t return with Red Jez becoming leader…

  • You AMS Bill will not pass. But even if it did, then there would be none of the “realignment” that it is usually assumed would follow any departure from First Past The Post. Most members or supporters of any party do not identify with a wing, only with the party. Under any other electoral system, the established British party pattern that was carried over into it would remain essentially unchanged.

  • I am still not convinced about lowering the voting age. We are being bounced into it because 16 and 17-year-olds voted in the Scottish referendum. But my mind is no longer entirely closed to it.

    The question is one of balance, plus the perfectly simple writing into the legislation of a ban on jurors and parliamentary candidates who were aged under 18 or even 21, as there is already a ban on jurors aged over 75. Balancing generational interests is as important as balancing class interests, or regional interests, or urban and rural interests, and so on. Only social democracy can do those.

    The sheer size of the ageing Baby Boom is such that the democracy in social democracy may require a modest reduction in the voting age. While that case has not yet been made sufficiently convincingly to justify the change, I am less and less decided that it simply never will or could be.

  • Chuka, the main problem is getting their parents to vote and you should concentrate on that issue. Of course the Tories will ignore this problem as it is in their interests to do so. I had thought that Jeremy Corbyn would concentrate on voter registration but he seems to have gone off to a world of his own. This is crucial to the survival of the Labour Party.

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