Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The time has come

It is time politicians put some faith in the future of the country by allowing votes at 16, writes James Cleverley. This article is part of James’ #VotesAt16 guest edit.

The future of our country is currently in its most uncertain point in generations. With a weak and divided Tory government limping towards a no-deal Brexit and shutting Britain off from the rest of the world, young people are rightfully angry. That is why we need to show young people that their voices matter by giving 16 and 17-year olds the vote.

This comes as a very personal issue to me. During the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union referendum I campaigned tirelessly to secure the future of our generation by staying in. However, I myself was barred from voting; the government looked at my age group and decided we were not to be trusted with the most important vote this country has ever held. On 23 June last year, our future was stripped away without us even being afforded a say in it.

The Tories are pursuing an agenda of brutal austerity, and as always it is young people who have suffered most. A side-effect of this has been a surge in political awareness amongst the lower age brackets; if this momentum is to be kept up it has to be harnessed as a source of support for the progressive policies we in Labour champion. The way to do this is by showing that we do listen and we do care about the issues which affect young people in this country. As was shown in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the political opinions of 16 and 17-year olds is diverse and often more logical than those of the higher age brackets. They are far less likely to base their vote on what the newspapers say, but instead utilise their technological literacy to make more informed choices.

Jim McMahon’s bill to extend the franchise will help to break the vicious cycle of government policies alienating younger people and causing them to losing faith with the entire political process. If under 25s voted in the same numbers as over 60s, the Tories simply would not be able to get away with horrifically unjust policies such as scrapping the housing benefit for under 21s and barring under 25s from receiving the living wage. That is the root cause of the Tories’ opposition to votes at 16: they know that they would not be able to treat students and young people in the same way they have done for the past seven years. Extending the voting franchise to 16-year olds will pave the way for fairer and more progressive policies to dominate the political agenda which in turn will inspire the young generation to not only vote, but to also get politically active and have their voices heard.

Critics of votes at 16 seem to rely on an assumption that political naivety is limited to those under 18. However, the facts (remember those?) point to the opposite conclusion. Already, 16 and 17-year olds are able to vote in Scottish parliament elections, and the Welsh assembly will soon follow. The evidence from Scotland and other EU countries points to the conclusion that they are often far more informed than their parents and grandparents when they cast their vote. The truth is that there is not a single argument against extending the voting franchise which is not motivated by partisan advantage. Instead of governing in the interests of young people, the Tories favour refusing them the right to vote instead.

Parliament now has an historic opportunity to show that it believes in the future of Britain. It can help to improve our democracy and show young people that politics can work for them by extending the voting franchise to those who are already deemed old enough to pay taxes, get married, and serve in the armed forces. This issue is at the heart of the principles of the Labour party, therefore we need to be the driving force behind making our democracy work for the many, not the few.


James Cleverley is guest editing Progress today in support of reducing the voting age to 16. You can read all the #VotesAt16 articles here. He tweets at @JamesCleverley1 


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James Cleverley

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  • 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.

  • The ONLY reason why you want this is because you believe that it will replace the voters you have lost.

    You need to understand the reasons for them leaving and after that deal with it.

    Contrary to what Corbyn’s clowns think most haven’t joined/ voted for another party they have just given up on politics.

    I can understand why you’re to lazy to deal with the issues but if you did find your backbone it would benefit EVERYONE, including those under the voting age who need a voice.

  • As Diane Abbott might say if a 16 year old can be judged as a adult in court, and not need a suitable adult,when arrested so don’t need. A solicitor, then they’re old enough to vote…oh wait

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