The Electoral Reform Society has launched a new pamphlet titled ‘Civic Duty: The Conservative Case for Votes at 16 & 17.’
Below is its introduction written by ERS Chief Executive, Darren Hughes.
British politics is becoming increasingly unpredictable – that much we know. But there are some things which are becoming increasingly certain.
One of those is the likelihood of 16- and 17-year-olds getting the vote across the UK.
This isn’t a hunch – at the start of this year we saw the landmark moment when the Welsh government – in a statement backed by the ERS – revealed it intends to legislate for 16- and 17-yearolds to vote in council elections from 2022.
That came just a month after the Expert Panel on Assembly Reform recommended the minimum voting age for Welsh Assembly elections be extended to 16 with effect from 2021.
These reforms will see Wales replicate the existing situation in Scotland, where 16- and 17-year-olds also took place in the historic 2014 independence referendum.
But the government at Westminster is yet to give its support to similar reforms for either General Elections or local elections in the rest of the United Kingdom. This has left our country divided when it comes to the franchise.
Firstly, while 16- and 17-year-olds in Scotland (and soon Wales) are entitled to vote in local elections, their counterparts in England and Northern Ireland are not.
Secondly, while 16- and 17-year-olds in Scotland are entitled to vote for their local and national representatives, they are denied a voice when it comes to electing MPs.
This is a bizarre message to be sending the next generation – and one which we expect to be rectified in the near future.
The question remains: which party will position itself as the foremost advocate for extending the franchise, when – not if – it happens?
Who will reap the rewards from leading this charge? This is an opportunity – one which more Conservative voices are urging their party to seize – not least the Tory Reform Group.
Owen Meredith writes about his organisation’s backing for the policy, reflecting on contributions from Ruth Davidson MSP and others in 2015.
Nicky Morgan MP has also been vocal in her case for extending suffrage. She makes a direct comparison between the campaign for votes at 16 and the campaign which resulted in partial women’s suffrage a century ago.
But, she argues, the one “overwhelming reason” for extending the franchise once more is to create a level playing field – for a modern, democratic union of nations.
Sir Peter Bottomley MP also places the current campaign in a historical context, going back to the Great Reform Acts of the nineteenth century. Votes at 16 is the latest chapter in Conservatism’s democratic story.
He also sets out his experiences with young people in politics, whom he considers to be “impressive and sensible.”
Miles Briggs MSP also draws on his own personal experiences of witnessing 16- and 17-year-olds in action in Scotland.
Their contribution in the lead up to the independence referendum changed many minds on the right, in favour of a fairer franchise.
From Wales, former Assembly Member Lisa Francis gives a personal take on the debate, through the experiences of her late father.
She concludes by asserting that votes at 16 is a matter of ‘Conservative principles’ – the extension of civic duty.
And we hear from Cecilia Parker, who as a young Conservative and former Member of Youth Parliament remarks on the many responsibilities already entrusted to 16- and 17-year-olds, in a rallying cry for fair representation.
The contributions in this pamphlet go well beyond the traditional arguments, and form a persuasive case for the Conservative Party to endorse votes at 16.
The alternative is that 16- and 17-year-olds are enfranchised in Scotland and Wales, leaving England looking increasingly out of touch and further fragmenting the UK.
The time for extending the civic duty of voting and equalising the franchise is now. The Prime Minister should seize this opportunity to show leadership – and inspire a new generation of active citizens.
Read the pamphlet