Votes at 16 not a Tory policy? Think again.
George Osborne has become the latest in a succession of Conservatives to throw his weight behind extending the franchise.
He tweeted this week:
Ahead of last year’s General Election, Theresa May ruled out lowering the voting age at UK elections arguing it “is one of those questions where you have to draw a line.”
But will she now take heed of the former Chancellor and adopt the policy before it is too late?
There is undoubtedly a growing momentum among the party’s supporters for change, not solely from Osborne.
During a private member’s bill debate just last year, Luke Graham, Conservative MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, said: “For the referendum in Scotland, we extended the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds. As a pragmatic Conservative, I saw that as a valuable test, and…they passed that test with flying colours. We should be a United Kingdom and give rights right across our country.”
Back in 2015, when Holyrood passed a bill allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote in Scottish parliament and local government elections, it did so with the support of Conservative MSPs.
At the time, the Tory Reform Group (TRG) published a pamphlet titled ‘Giving 16 and 17 Year Old the Vote. The Tory Case’ in which the group’s then chair, David Fazakerley, as well as Ruth Davidson MSP and Dr Sarah Wollaston MP set out the arguments on why the party should back the policy.
Ruth Davidson’s arguments cut through the usual opposition – and from a position of experience. Her piece is worth quoting in detail:
“The political motives for [introducing votes at 16 in Scotland] may have been questionable – but the democratic effect turned out to be entirely positive.
“Having watched and debated in front of 16 and 17 year olds throughout the referendum…my position has changed. We deem 16 year olds adult enough to join the army, to have sex, get married, leave home and work full-time. The evidence of the referendum suggests that, clearly, they are old enough to vote too.
“…The Nationalists had only pushed the case for extending the franchise because they believed it would boost their vote. But there was evidence that, once they engaged with the facts, a majority of 16 and 17 year olds decided – just like everyone else – to say No Thanks. In a mock referendum of more than 10,000 16 and 17 year olds in Aberdeenshire, more than three-quarters voted No.
“Similar votes at the Universities of Glasgow, Dundee, Strathclyde and Edinburgh all followed suit. Surveys before the vote showed that 16-17 year olds had the exact same concerns as everyone else, the economy prime among them.
“16 and 17 year olds considered the facts just as rationally – if not more so – as everyone else. If that doesn’t prove they are worthy of the vote, I don’t know what does.”
Indeed, many Scottish Conservatives are now fully in favour of votes at 16.
John Lamont MP tells the ERS:
“It is true that conservatives are, quite rightly, sceptical of change for change’s sake. However, the Conservative party have been at the forefront of significant changes to our electoral system in the past, from Disraeli to Pankhurst.
“The Conservative party believes in individual responsibility and civic duty and what better way to extend a sense of civic duty than to give more UK citizens the right to vote?”
He adds: “It remains UK Government policy that the voting age should be maintained at 18 – but there is clearly more and more support for a rethink.”
The party has other long-standing supporters of Votes at 16, not least Sir Peter Bottomley MP. He writes that: “The arguments against are familiar: they were heard before the 1832, 1867 and other Reform Bills.
“Actually, voting is voluntary; maintaining a prohibition until 18 is unnecessary.
“To the remaining doubters, I recommend listening to the speakers when the Youth Parliament take over the Commons chamber each year.”
If the Prime Minister was to change the Government’s position, it would be far from universally opposed within the Conservative ranks.
Votes at 16 is a policy which has widespread support among the vast majority of Westminster parties and is now a reality in Scotland and, in the near future, in Wales.
On this, George Osborne is correct. For the government to ensure it is on the right side of history – and to ensure we have a fair and unified franchise, it is time to listen to the growing Conservative calls for reform.
A version of the blog was originally posted in January 2018.
Picture Credit: altogetherfool