Two of our issues are back in the House of Commons this week as Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, will be presenting her ‘Electoral Reform (Proportional Representation and Reduction of Voting Age)’ motion. Whilst ‘Ten Minute Rule’ motions of this kind rarely become law, they provide a chance for MPs to support a motion they care about and a chance for arguments of both sides to be heard.
What links extending the franchise to 16 & 17 year olds with proportional representation? Both of them could play a part in defusing the turnout time bomb threatening our democracy.
Every generation has lower turnout than the last, except for 16 and 17 year olds. Evidence from the Scottish independence referendum, substantiated by research from Austria and Norway, shows that 16 and 17 year-olds – aided by the encouragement of families and schools – have higher rates of turnout than 18 to 24 year-olds. If young people are registered early and get into the habit of voting, we will see lasting improvements in turnout as they age. Extending the franchise is as much about getting 36-37 year olds voting in 20 years time, as it is about getting 16 & 17 year olds voting today.
But for many people, extending the franchise under First Past the Post would mean moving from being denied a vote, to having a vote that won’t make a difference.
Before the general election we predicted the results in 386 seats, getting just 5 wrong. In safe seats across the country the result in a general election is a bygone conclusion. Even if parties have significant support in hundreds of constituencies, it counts for nothing if they aren’t the single biggest party. And with half of MPs winning with less than 50% of the vote, being the single biggest party can be more to do with how the vote splits between your opponents than how popular you are. All this is highly discouraging for voters, who find their votes often go to waste. As the loss of safe seats is rare, parties target their resources on a small number of floating voters in marginal seats – meaning they give up on millions of voters across the country.
If we want people to engage with politics, we need their votes to matter and we need people to get into the habit of voting. Caroline Lucas’ motion calls for us to make both these things happen, so we’re looking forward to watching her speech on Wednesday. You can watch it as well on parliamentlive.tv or BBC Parliament from roughly 12.30pm.