You need to be 18 to vote for Sunak or Starmer. That could change if Labour wins

Beyond lowering the voting age, there might be wider constitutional reforms in the British pipeline

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak campaigns in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, Britain, on May 27. EPA
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It’s been the most bizarre start to a UK general election campaign that I can remember.

Last week, I mentioned here in The National that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announcing the election while standing in the rain confirmed the old wisdom that leaders can be loved or hated (or both) but were undermined if we laughed at them. That problem has become worse for Mr Sunak.

Beyond being soaked making the announcement of an election on July 4, he managed a series of humiliating encounters.

With voters in Wales, he asked how keen they were to watch the football. England have qualified for the European Championships. The team from Wales has not. Groans all round.

Then Mr Sunak allowed himself to be photographed several times in front of signs saying “Exit”, when it is his exit from Downing Street that everyone is considering. Then there was a staged meeting with voters. It turned out that one of his questioners was, in fact, a councillor from Mr Sunak’s own party.

The opposition Labour party cannot believe their luck. They have begun producing humorous campaign advertisements on social media. They show Mr Sunak writing a diary about his achievements with the handwriting of a child, and a commentary that makes him look particularly immature.

But his own conduct continues to undermine his serious side.

He visited Belfast, which is a great city, but the event there was staged in the Titanic quarter – an area named after the world’s most notorious shipping disaster. A ship thought unsinkable ploughed into an iceberg and sank with multiple fatalities. Mr Sunak was asked – not surprisingly – whether his own ship was sinking.

The facts are not good. Many of his own MPs have decided to leave the Conservative ship and not stand again for parliament. You may conclude that they themselves think the ship is about to encounter the iceberg known as voters in July.

I could continue in this vein for some time, but there remains a big fear in Labour circles. Complacency. They fret that perhaps many voters will assume the Conservatives are thoroughly doomed and therefore they don’t bother to vote. Labour could potentially lose surprisingly, as happened back in 1992.

But among all the fun at Mr Sunak’s expense and jitters from his opponents, there are interesting ideas in this campaign.

Labour’s leader, Keir Starmer, is considering reducing the voting age to 16. I was sceptical about this a few years ago when it was introduced by the Scottish National Party in Scotland and also by the Welsh government. For now, in the Westminster elections you have to be at least 18 to vote. The possible change means that about 1.5 million young new voters would get the chance. Such a change could be done very rapidly if Labour win power.

My original scepticism about 16 year olds voting is probably the same as many people over the age of 30. What is their experience of life? What do they know?

During the 2014 Scottish independence campaign, I attended a number of events aimed at teenagers. I was stunned – and cheered – by their inquiries and their knowledge. I found that many of the teenagers I spoke with and interviewed were more open minded and better informed than many voters twice their age.

While the UK election campaign, therefore, will be dominated by the usual issues – the economy, national security, health, migration and the cost of living – it is interesting that Labour is thinking about changes to the way we do politics.

Most British people are taught – if they are taught anything about the British constitution and way of governing – that it is glorious and unwritten. Neither of these things is true. Much of the British constitution is written down in various places, but it is uncodified. There is no one key constitutional document. The constitution, the way we are taught it, pretends it works brilliantly in practice even if no one understands it in theory.

Unlike Americans, most British people have little idea what our constitutional rules are supposed to be. The constitution is so flexible that it can be changed (or made up) as we go along. Perhaps if the Labour party is at last thinking about changing the age of voting, we can expect eventually wider constitutional reforms.

That would include changes to the unelected House of Lords. But the big issue is whether Labour will ever switch away from the first-past-the-post election system for Westminster and change to proportional representation already used successfully to elect the devolved governments in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. The only other European country to have a first-past-the-post system for national elections is Belarus. Belarus isn’t the normal constitutional model for British democracy.

Whatever happens next, it’s at least the beginning of serious discussions about serious issues with serious consequences – if we can get beyond the “Titanic” success that Mr Sunak has made of his campaign so far.

Published: May 29, 2024, 7:00 AM