Sir Peter Bottomley MP, the Member of Parliament for Worthing West wrote this piece for our pamphlet Civic Duty The Conservative Case for votes at 16 and 17.
“What it means to be a truly democratic society remains an ongoing, unfinished, story.” These words conclude the history of voting rights on the website of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
In the UK, the story could be said to begin in 1832 with the Great Reform Acts, following the rejection of reform the previous year.
This landmark legislation abolished the ‘rotten boroughs’ – constituencies in which just a handful of people were able to elect the MP. The vote was still limited to just four percent of the population until the second Reform Act 1867, the secret ballot in 1883 and the third Reform Act to seek fairness between rural and urban voting.
Nearly a century later, there was progress again with the Representation of the People Act 1918. This removed practically all property requirements for men, allowed the vote at 19 to military service personnel and enfranchised women over 30 who met property qualifications.
Gender equality concerning voting was achieved via the Equal Franchise Act 1928, though in Northern Ireland many could not meet the property qualification to vote in local elections, and the 1969 Representation of the People Act reduced the age of voting to 18.
Nearly 50 years on, I am convinced that the electorate should be expanded: people aged 16 and 17 should have the right to vote.
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Those who disagree can point to examples of requirements for people to reach the age of 18, such as when buying alcohol or getting married without parental consent in England and Wales.
But there is no logical reason to have a uniform age for all responsibilities. The issues surrounding the various social and political matters in which people are restricted by age vary greatly, and so it is right there are individual debates around each.
When it comes to voting, there is a sensible argument for why the age should be 16. If we are in favour of the average new voter taking part in a national election aged 18, to achieve this, voting eligibility needs to be 16.
General elections occur every five years under normal circumstances. More than half of those newly enfranchised at 16 would only be able to cast a vote once they were aged at least 18.
The direct vote for an MP is an indirect vote for a national government that could be in place for up to five years. By the end of that Government, a 16–year–old will have reached the age of 21.
Beyond this pragmatic argument, there is also a positive story to tell about those we would like to welcome to our democracy.
When I listen to students and apprentices at colleges in my constituency, or to interns in my office, I do not think they are too young to vote.
They are impressive and sensible. They are capable of making reasoned judgments.
I have the same feelings when in discussions with youth councillors and youth mayors across the country.
My appeal to Conservatives and supporters of other parties who oppose this is not to approach this issue with calculations of party advantage. The United Kingdom’s democratic story is more important than that.
Let us unite in trusting and engaging with our country’s future. We can add our chapter to the story of reform.
Read Civic Duty - The Conservative Case for Votes at 16 and 17