Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

This issue is one of equality

If people into the habit of voting from early on they will continue to do so throughout their adult lives, writes Sarah-Jane Smyth. This article is part of a guest edit on #VotesAt16.

Two years ago, in 2015, as a politically engaged young woman, I was keeping up to date with everything happening in the general election campaign. However, as a 17-year old I was denied a vote in this election, despite being no less mature or informed than I am today at 19.

Today in the United Kingdom, 1.5 million 16 and 17-year olds are denied the right to vote. A 17-year old in the UK is seen as old enough to work and pay taxes, drive a car, join the army and even get married, but not vote. This is unacceptable.

Young people are so often overlooked in politics, when in my experience they are some of the most engaged people in society. In Scotland, where 16 and 17-year olds can vote in local and Scottish parliament elections, the turnout in the 16-17 age bracket is higher than in the 18-24 bracket.

Young people are affected by the same issues as any other voter. They are not single-issue voters as right wing press so often likes to imply. A 17-year old going to college is affected by bus fares rising due to private bus companies having free reign. The bus fares that they can’t afford to pay because they no longer have education maintenance allowance and are working for ridiculously low pay on zero-hour contracts. Young people are humanitarians and internationalists they care about refugees and other global issues. They care about the environment and what will be left for future generations. To say that all that young people care about is tuition fees is frankly insulting.

The fight for votes at 16 should not be interpreted as a purely partisan one, a tactic by Labour to gain more votes. This issue is one of equality. As democrats we believe in universal suffrage. Opening our democracy to young people can only be a good thing, it will ensure our democracy is fully representative of the population.

Austria is the only country in Europe where votes at 16 is fully implemented. Since it has been implemented in Austria in 2007 there has been a greater political engagement in young people, with political education in schools going hand in hand with the lowering of the voting age.

Just because votes at 16 is not widely implemented in Europe does not mean that Britain should not adopt it. The UK should be proud to take this bold and progressive step towards equality, leading the way throughout Europe. By decreasing the voting age young people will become even more politically engaged. Political education would have to be more widely taught in schools. If we get people into the habit of voting from an early age they will continue to do so and keep that interest throughout their adult lives.

The arguments used today against votes at 16; that young people don’t know enough, aren’t responsible enough and wouldn’t make the right decision are the same arguments used against women’s suffrage. Our society and the world around us is changing. It is time our democracy does too.

That is why I urge all MPs support Jim McMahon’s private members bill today. It is time for change and we have the power to help make it happen.

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Sarah-Jane Smyth is co-chair of Manchester Labour students. 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. Sarah-Jane tweets at @sjsmyth_

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Sarah-Jane Smyth

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