Teenage voters in Scotland
There were lots of people who opposed the idea of giving votes in the Scottish referendum to 16 and 17 year olds. There were very few who opposed it when they saw it in reality. As Tory MSP John Lamont put it: “I was hugely impressed by the level of engagement and understanding that our young people demonstrated during the referendum campaign; we should be very proud of them.” Lamont, like the Scottish Tories in general, was against the extension of the franchise before the referendum. Having seen it in practice, he is now calling for the voting age to be lowered across the UK.
Young people were more than capable of taking such a vital decision. In fact, in my experience, they were often more clued up than their parents. At a point of their lives when most of them are still in education, they were accustomed to learning and, often, had looked long and hard at the facts.
Voting is habitual. The best way to get people to do it is to make sure they start when they are young. And this is much easier with sixteen and seventeen year olds than it is their older brothers and sisters. Because people at school or college are more easily reached by parties and electoral commission campaigns; are more likely to be taken to the polls by their parents. By the time they are eighteen, more people have left home. More are just getting used to living as adults. And too often, registering to vote slips down and then off their list of things to do.
But the case for votes at sixteen doesn't really lie in such practicalities. It's true that their youth by definition means that they have less total experience. But I know relatively wealthy people who have barely glimpsed what most would see as “the real world”. I've met pensioners who couldn't tell me the names of the main parties. No one uses this as an argument to disenfranchise them, and nor should we.
It's true that many sixteen and seventeen year olds will not have had a serious job yet, but they know better than anyone the state of our current education system. It's true that most don't have children to think about, but they have a better sense than any of us of what it's like to be young in Britain today. It's true that many won't know what it's like to struggle to pay the rent, but, then, neither, I suspect, does David Cameron. Democracy works not because every voter knows the whole world, but because we each know our own part of it.
Sixteen year olds are allowed to marry yet they can't vote for governments who might help them find a home. Seventeen year olds can be let loose behind the wheel of a car but have no say over how public transport is run. Under eighteens have their own minimum wage but can't vote for it to be raised. They can sign up to the army, but not vote out governments who would start wars.
Ed Miliband's announcement this week that he will introduce votes at 16 in time for the 2016 elections is, therefore, very welcome. It's been tried in Scotland. It's worked brilliantly. Those who said that teenagers couldn't deal with big political questions have been silenced: young Scots faced the biggest of them all, and engaged carefully, thoughtfully, knowledgeably and passionately. There is no reason to believe their friends in the South wouldn't do the same.
I only have one objection. Why wait? Labour supports lowering the voting age. So do the Lib Dems. So do the SNP and Plaid Cymru. So does Caroline Lucas. I'm not sure about the SDLP, but even without them, that adds up to a majority of seats. If the opposition moved a motion changing the legislation to lower the voting age to sixteen, then the only way the Tories would be able to prevent this from passing is if they succeeded in getting the Lib Dems to vote against their own policy. And whilst they have made a habit of doing exactly that, I certainly wouldn't want to bank on it if I were the Tories.
There is an electoral reason why Ed Miliband would want to push through votes at sixteen now, before the May election. Young people are significantly more likely to vote Labour than Tory. In an election this close, extending the franchise in such a way could make the key difference in a few seats. And a few seats may be the difference between him being Prime Minister and not.
There's a broader strategic reason it might be a good idea in the run up to 2015. Before 2010, a fumbling George Osborne campaigned on the reduction of inheritance tax. While the policy itself was relatively popular, it entrenched the idea that the Tories were a party of and for the rich. Looking ahead to 2015, votes at sixteen is, arguably, exactly the opposite sort of policy: it isn't hugely popular, but it does embody a broader sense of a change, of opening up politics, of building for the future. That's exactly the kind of image he needs to paint if he's going to win.
Most importantly, there's also a principled reason to rush legislation through. There are thousands of Scottish teenagers who, when given the chance to vote in the referendum, engaged deeply in trying to understand our political system. To shut these people out of the polling booths on the 7th of May would be criminal. And if they are to be allowed to vote, then their friends across the UK must be too.
Ed Miliband is right to back votes at sixteen. But he doesn't need to wait to be Prime Minister to exercise his power. He can, if MPs vote for their parties' positions, command a parliamentary majority. If he can find the time to force the issue to a vote, he can give Cameron a bloody nose, and paint himself as a leader willing to change our political system for good.