It's time to let 16 year olds vote in the UK

If Labour wins the next election, Keir Starmer is considering lowering the voting age

An official attaches a sign for the by-election on June 23, 2022 in Wakefield, England. Getty
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Nine years ago I travelled around Scotland filming reports for BBC News in the lead up to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. There were entrenched views on both sides. The Scottish National Party led by First Minister Alex Salmond was well organised and hoped that with a little luck they would achieve more than the 50 per cent necessary to endorse the idea of independence. Ranged against them were the unionist parties – Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – whose Westminster leaders disagreed on many things but agreed that Scotland should stay within the UK.

But in this battle for what could have been the future dissolution of the UK after more than four centuries, one group of voters really surprised me. They were those aged 16 and 17. That’s because this was the first significant political vote in Britain in which the franchise was extended to those under the age of 18. I confess I was sceptical. The argument in favour of allowing younger voters to take part was that this was a once-in-a-lifetime decision which would shape their future. But my scepticism vanished when I realised how open and interested younger voters proved to be on the issues, debating the conflicting ideas of independence or staying within the UK.

Some pointed out they could leave school, get a job, pay taxes and (under certain circumstances) get married under the age of 18 so why not be allowed to vote and decide their future? The opposite argument was that they were too young and did not have enough life experience to make a wise decision.

The last time the voting age was reduced – from 21 to 18 – it was by the then Labour prime minister Harold Wilson in 1969

Talking with groups of 16 and 17 year olds convinced me that they had a right to vote. The ones I met had studied the issues, debated among their friends and family and tried to form a balanced view. Many of these Scottish teenagers had a grasp of the issues that would have put their elders to shame by the fluency of their arguments and their command of facts.

The reason all this is relevant now is that the Labour party leader Keir Starmer is considering whether – if Labour wins power after the next election – 16 year olds should be given the vote in England and Northern Ireland, and all 16 year olds should be able to vote in British General Elections.

Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (C) poses for a selfie during a visit to local businesses in Hove, west of Brighton on the second day of the annual Labour Party conference in Brighton, on September 26, 2021.  AFP

They can already vote in Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections, but not for Westminster. Mr Starmer has also suggests EU citizens living in the UK may also be allowed to vote. This would add more than six million people to the British electorate. Undoubtedly extending the franchise would benefit Mr Starmer’s Labour party.

The last time the voting age was reduced – from 21 to 18 – it was by the then Labour prime minister Harold Wilson in 1969. The Conservative party opposes the idea of a further reduction in the voting age with some claiming it would reverse Brexit. But so what?

Choosing a different future is why we have elections. Of course both Labour and the Conservatives act in their own self interest. Younger voters are assumed to be more attracted to Labour; older, to the Conservatives. Yet the Conservative party itself in 2019 allowed their own party members under the age of 18 to vote in the Conservative leadership election, the one in which Boris Johnson became prime minister.

It’s difficult to follow Conservative party logic if they allow 16 year olds to vote for the person who became prime minister four years ago but oppose 16 year olds voting in General Elections. Will it happen? It seems that 16 and 17 year olds will eventually be given the right to vote in General Elections throughout the UK. The question is when. It will not be before the next British election, expected in the autumn of 2024.

If Labour win a majority then, voting reform will be on their agenda. But perhaps we should go further. Traditionally British people vote on Thursdays. That means that polling stations are set up in schools, churches and other public buildings and schoolchildren often get a day off. This seems a pointless tradition in the 21st century. Modern European countries tend to vote on a Sunday, when most people are already off work and schools are closed.

A century ago voting in General Elections in Britain took place over several days. Since 1918 that was switched mostly to Thursdays because on Fridays voters traditionally were paid their weekly wages. It was assumed that over the weekend male voters in particular would drink alcohol and be subject to pressure from the Conservative brewing interests, while on Sundays they would be subject to influence ministers of religion, which is why Thursdays were chosen.

If a future Labour government really wants to modernise the antiquated British voting system it would change the polling day to weekends so children are not denied a day at school, as well as considering whether 16 year olds should vote. They might also reconsider whether the First Past The Post British voting system needs to change – but that’s a subject for another day.

Published: May 31, 2023, 4:00 AM