Comment | The Case for Votes at 16

With Ed Miliband’s call to lower the voting age to 16, and this summer’s announcement that 16 and 17 year olds living in Scotland will be able to cast their vote in the independence referendum, you don’t have to look far to see that the civil rights of young people are being taken more seriously. It’s always promising to see politicians from any party proposing progressive, positive changes. I for one take more inspiration from these kind of ideas than Nick Clegg’s stellar proposal to start charging 5p for plastic bags; but of course, there’s more to this than just the headline.

Currently, it’s not in any politician’s particular interest to give young people a helping hand. Those below 18 can’t vote in elections, and those who have just turned 18 are less likely to cast their vote for all manner of reasons. Because so many young people are excluded from our democracy, MPs don’t have any incentive to tackle the issues which affect society’s youth exclusively. So many politicians fail to take issues such as youth unemployment seriously and often end up demonising young people, using them as scapegoats for society’s problems.

Then there are those who argue that people who are too young to vote are simply unable to make rational decisions because they haven’t got the life experience. We often forget that as soon as someone turns 16, they cross the threshold into a world which suddenly expects much more of them. They can join the military and fight for their country, they can get married and have children, and they might even have to leave home and be forced to fend entirely for themselves. To deny them a voice on the laws that affect them is unjustifiable. They should have the power to influence those who make decisions that directly impact on their lives.

But you’ll have no doubt heard the argument that at this age, people are probably not interested in politics and simply don’t care that they cannot vote for a few more years. It’s true that many of us won’t have been that politically aware back then. But to suggest that there’s a leap in levels of political understanding between the ages of 16 and 18 is ridiculous. Certainly, if you were to find yourself in a room full of 16 year olds, most of them would never admit to being interested in formal politics. However, many of them would say they care about matters such as employment, tuition fees and supporting themselves after their education finished. All of these are hugely political issues. Just because a young person is less likely to write to their MP or join a political party, it doesn’t mean that they’re not interested or engaged in politics.

By refusing to enfranchise 16 and 17 year olds, we must acknowledge that the issues most important to them may never be addressed properly. Lowering the voting age will encourage political parties to start taking the issues that affect young people seriously. The dynamic of elections will change for the better. Our politicians will have to listen to the views of everyone the law affects and not just those over the age of 18. Hopefully, in the wake of Ed Miliband’s proposal, we’ll start seeing more policies aimed at improving the lives of young people. We know that political parties of all colours deliberately target different groups of voters with different types of policies. With a new group to consider, they’ll have to broaden their horizons that little bit more. And for those young people out there that still don’t have a voice, that can only be a good thing.

Alice Smart


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