Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Democracy is about franchising people

Young people have earned their right to have a greater say in our politics, writes Jim McMahon.  This article is part of a guest edit on #VotesAt16.

The campaign to lower the voting age is not a new one. But there is a point in history when the time comes. We have seen it in our recent past, when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. And we have seen it when women and working class men were given the vote at the end of the first world war. These were hard won achievements.

Now I believe that the time has come to give 16 and 17-year olds that vote too. Because democracy is not, and never should be, an exclusive club. Members of parliament across the house agree with me on this, and there is a growing Tory case for votes at 16 too.

I think we demand a lot of 16 and 17-year olds today. They are part of an increasingly complex world, and were not given a say in the referendum on United Kingdom’s membership of European Union when they clearly should have been. Young people also face growing challenges – an unpredictable jobs market, obstacles to higher education, and acute housing pressures, to name a few.

So with this in mind, it is my view that democracy should be about franchising people. And it must move with the times, evolving to allow young people to affect change on the issues that matter to them most.

And for those Tory MPs who do not support this – they must wake up and realise that politics has become far more inclusive. There is now a drive to take into account a wider range of views when making decisions on people’s behalf.

Young people proved their worth in this year’s general election, when we had the highest youth turnout since 1992. In Scotland, where 16 and 17-year olds were given a say in the independence referendum, 75 per cent turned out to vote. The success of extending the franchise there led to Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson declaring herself a convert to votes at 16. And now Wales is moving to lower the voting age for elections there.

Votes at 16 is a priority for young people themselves. This year almost a million young people voted in the UK youth parliament country-wide ballot called ‘Make Your Mark’, where votes at 16 was made one of their five priority campaigns.

I also see the desire for change and for political participation in Oldham’s youth parliament. I see and hear it when I visit schools and colleges. Young people are engaged and switched on to the world around them, and well aware of their place in society.

So clearly the time has come. Today, whatever the outcome of the debate, the campaign for votes at 16 will move forward. Because if you believe in a United Kingdom, it’s important we have equity in democracy too.


Jim McMahon is member of parliament for Oldham West and Royton, and has put forward a bill to lower the voting age. This article is part of a guest edit of Progress today in support of reducing the voting age to 16. You can read all the #VotesAt16 articles here. Jim tweets at @JimfromOldham

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Jim McMahon MP

is member of parliament for Oldham West and Royton

1 comment

  • I am still not convinced about lowering the voting age. I would not allow 16 and 17-year-olds to get married, or to join the Armed Forces. Between the increase in the participation age, as we are apparently expected to call it, and the increase in the personal tax allowance, 16 and 17-year-olds are now wildly unlikely to be paying income tax, not that that really has anything to do with this. But my mind is no longer entirely closed to this change.

    I remember what it was like to be a politically active Sixth Former. It is not an experience that I shall ever forget. No one who was one could ever imagine that it was, is, or will ever be normal. Even a superbly well-educated 16-year-old is still a 16-year-old. Lowering the voting age even further might pose a very serious threat to democracy, since no one seriously imagines that the opinion of a 16-year-old matters as much as that of his Head Teacher, or his doctor, or his mother. Why, then, should each of them have only as many votes as he had? Thus might the process start.

    Harold Wilson probably thought that he might gain some advantage from lowering the voting age. But the Sixties Swingers hated him (that is largely forgotten now, but it is true), and they handed the 1970 Election to Ted Heath instead. If there had been a General Election, as was once widely expected, in the spring of 1996, then, having been born in September 1977, I would have been able to vote in that Election, even though I would still have had a couple of months of school left to go. But by then, I had been free for more than two years to walk out any time I liked. I would have had that freedom even if the participation age had been raised to 18, as has now happened.

    Lowering the voting age to two years below the school leaving age would literally be giving the vote to children; to people whom we, as a society, had decided were not yet capable of deciding for themselves whether or not they wished to leave full-time education or training. It is still well within living memory that most people left school, and went straight into taxpaying work, a full seven years before they were entitled to vote. Now, we propose that people should have the vote two years before they were able to leave school or an equivalent.

    If anyone doubts quite how monolithically middle-class our political culture has become, then consider that it has almost certainly never occurred to the proponents of lowering the voting age that even 21 was ever attained before leaving full-time education, never mind a third of one’s life to that date after having done so. If 16 and 17-year-olds could vote, then why could they not be called up or cajoled into fighting what have become this country’s never-ending wars? When it is said that this change would leave them open to exploitation, then that is what that ought to mean.

    And yet, and yet, and yet.

    With the introduction of individual registration, I suspect that the proportion of the extremely elderly that remained on the electoral register would be hardly, if at all, higher than the proportion of those all the way up to the age of about 25. Of those registered, if 16 and 17-year-olds were able to be so, then I strongly suspect that the franchise would be exercised by a higher proportion of them than of the over-90s, who are also a very small cohort. I have seen the way in which candidates press the flesh in nursing homes when there is an election coming up. Some of the residents know exactly what is going on. Others are decidedly confused. Others again hardly know Christmas from Tuesday. 16 and 17-year-olds would be very much the same.

    Like a lot of my vintage, I see one third of bus passes used to commute, for much of the year from and to homes heated by the Winter Fuel Allowance. But then I consider that there will be none of those things for us, even though the people now coming into them no more fought in the War than we did. They were no more on this earth than we were while the War was being fought by anyone.

    In my meaner-spirited moments, I ponder that people who “worked all their lives” were paid to do so, and ought not to have spent it all, as of course many of them did not, with the result that they are now loaded. Or I ponder that they have not in fact “worked all their lives” if they have retired a mere two thirds of the way through the probable length of their lives.

    I make no apology for seeing no War-like debt to be repaid to those whose formative experiences were sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, full employment, cheap housing, student grants, public ownership, municipal services, the explosion of mass consumer affluence, and the felt need to demonstrate against another country’s war because this country was not waging one.

    However, I believe in full employment, cheap housing, student grants, public ownership, municipal services, and opposition to American wars of liberal intervention. I am by no means averse to the finer things in life. I fully recognise that few are those who could really manage without their bus passes or their Winter Fuel Allowances. I support the principle of universality to the very marrow of my bones.

    No, 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, and perhaps even 25 or 30, 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.

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