There’s been plenty of talk at Conservative conference of how to win back young voters. But so far there has been little policy detail. What’s happening in Wales might provide some inspiration.
If the motion is approved next week, legislation will be introduced in early 2019 which will see Wales join Scotland (as well as Jersey, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man) in extending the vote to 16 and 17 year olds.
We use the word ‘game changer’ too much in politics but this is a worthy contender: this will be a decisive change to boost the health of Welsh democracy – and enfranchise a new generation to have a say in issues that affect their lives and their future.
This move is in addition to ongoing work by the Welsh Government to introduce votes at 16 for local government elections in Wales – alongside other methods to boost participation including pilots on voting in different places, modernising electoral registration, and votes for resident foreign nationals.
All of this raises the question: if Wales can reform its politics, why can’t England?
In the Scottish Independence referendum, 16 and 17 year olds had higher rates of turnout than 18 to 24 year olds. We know that those who vote when they’re younger are more likely to continue voting. Indeed, votes at 16 has worked so well in Scotland that it’s actually changed the mind of Scottish Conservative Leader, Ruth Davidson MSP, who is now a keen supporter. In fact, the Scottish Parliament was unanimous in adopting a fairer franchise after the indy ref.
And while reforms are making progress in Wales that will improve voters’ democratic rights, the UK government is more preoccupied with limiting them.
Their mandatory voter ID trials in May this year proved to be a sledgehammer to crack a nut. 350 people were denied the right to vote in just a handful of council areas, simply because they didn’t have the correct form of ID.
Meanwhile, plans to slash the number of MPs by 50 would amount to a government power grab, unless changes are made. The government have made no pledge to limit the number of frontbenchers – meaning a cut in MPs would undermine backbench scrutiny.
Rather than focusing on limiting people’s ability to have their say, the government should follow Wales’ and Scotland’s lead in creating a truly UK-wide franchise, giving more people the power to have their say over decisions that affect their lives.
Young people in England will be looking enviously across the two borders of Wales and Scotland as 16 and 17 year olds have their say on who represents them. Conversely, 16 and 17 year olds in Scotland and Wales, who will enjoy the right to vote on devolved and local government elections, will look on in confusion at the next General Election where they will suddenly have their rights taken away.
Westminster is trailing behind on democratic reform. There’s an easy way to catch up: backing Peter Kyle’s cross-party votes at 16 bill when it returns later this month.
As Tory conference continues, the Conservative case for extending the vote is getting stronger by the day. And since it’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’, embracing suffrage for 16&17s would send a powerful message of hope to Britain’s young people.
Sign our petition to extend the franchise for all elections