You might not have realised, but on Thursday, thousands of 16 and 17 year olds trekked to polling stations across the country to exercise their democratic right to vote. They went with the full support of all the main parties – including the Conservatives. The country in question was Scotland.
Since the law was passed unanimously in June 2015 (on the same day as MPs in Westminster rejected it for the EU referendum), 16 and 17 year olds have been able to vote all elections there, except for the House of Commons.
Not only that, but they voted for representatives using a proportional system – the Single Transferable Vote. May the 3rd marked the 10th anniversary of Scotland using STV for local elections. What we saw when it was introduced was the number of uncontested seats (where only one candidate was standing) plummet. The number of ‘one party councils’ collapsed. And voter choice and the likelihood that someone they voted for got in basically tripled overnight.
The adoption of votes at 16 in Scotland – which has overwhelming support following the huge success of the Scottish referendum when it comes to youth engagement – was the next landmark for deepening democracy there.
So it was disappointing that two days ago – just before 16 and 17 year olds marched to the voting booths north of the border – the UK government rejected it for Westminster.
But there’s an important caveat: the government rejected votes at 16 for next month’s election. So it’s now up to the next government to introduce it for future votes.
Votes at 16 is about what kind of democracy we want to be – one which engages our young people in their futures, and securing a fair franchise.
And we know it works. 16 and 17 year olds threw themselves wholeheartedly into the Scottish referendum, with 75% voting and 97% saying they would vote in future elections.
Even those opposed to extending the franchise for the Scottish referendum now agree that they participated with enthusiasm and made valuable contributions to the debate. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, previously a sceptic, spoke of how impressed she was during the referendum: stadiums full of those school-leavers listening to political speeches, huge numbers of 16 and 17 year olds disagreeing and agreeing, deliberating in informed ways. This is the kind of democracy we should strive towards.
The government’s rejection of votes at 16 is particularly incongruous given that Wales may soon be adopting it for elections. A huge survey in 2015 showed overwhelming support for the idea among young people, and there is growing backing in the Assembly following ERS Cymru’s campaigning work. With several inquiries into Welsh democracy underway, Wales may well become the second nation of the UK to extend the franchise.
With momentum building for reform, we hope this is the last General Election which excludes Britain’s school leavers. Let’s have a franchise which is open, democratic and which sends a positive message to our young people that their opinions genuinely count.
Coupled with a world-class programme of citizenship education to prepare younger people for using their vote, and with schools leading the way on registration,, we can have a genuinely ‘one nation’ franchise which engages our young people, instead of excluding them, and which inspires a new generation to get involved – and stay involved – in our democracy.
16 and 17 year olds in Scotland – and across the UK – will be hugely let down next month by being denied a vote for Westminster.
But while the government may have temporarily rejected votes at 16, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s a question of ‘when, not if’ when it comes to creating a fairer franchise for the whole UK.