Dr Jacqueline Briggs, Head of the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln, shares her thoughts on the debate on 16 and 17 year olds’ right to vote in light of the upcoming EU Referendum
So, £9 million is deemed, by the Government, to be a price worth paying to send a leaflet to every household promoting EU membership. In a crude synergy, this figure is 50% more expensive than the £6 million that the Government claimed it would cost to allow 16 and 17 year olds the opportunity to vote in the referendum – and used, in part, as an argument against doing so.
Sadly absent from a great deal of the debate about the forthcoming European Union Referendum, due to take place on Thursday 23rd June, has been discussion of the fact that 16 and 17 year olds within the UK will not be eligible to vote. They will, therefore, be excluded from participating in this ‘huge decision’, as David Cameron labelled it. On 18th November 2015, members of the House of Lords had the opportunity to rectify this omission when the European Union 2015–16 Referendum Bill reached its Report Stage in the House of Lords. Indeed, they voted by 293 votes to 211 to allow this to happen. In early December, however, the Commons, by 303 to 253 votes (a majority of 50). chose to block the Lords’ proposals – one of the arguments expounded was that the cost of registering 16 and 17 year olds would amount to, as the Government’s noted, ‘… in excess of £6 million of additional public expenditure’. On 14th December 2015, the Lords voted, by 263 votes to 246, to reject an amendment that challenged Government figures on the cost of registering 16 and 17 year olds, thereby curtailing the debate.
Having just finished writing a book on young people and political participation, I am mindful of the fact that the votes at 16 debate has supporters and detractors in equal measure. The decision has already been taken, however, to not lower the voting age to 16 for the forthcoming referendum on continued membership of the European Union. Given that David Cameron referred to the referendum, as ‘… perhaps the biggest decision we will make in our lifetimes’ and, as stated, Cameron himself recognises it is a ‘huge decision’, it is only right, therefore, that 16 and 17 year olds should play their part in that decision making process.
In addition, polls indicate that younger voters are more likely to vote to remain in the European Union – a fact that ought to have appealed to Cameron. Younger voters have known nothing other than being inside the EU and it is, therefore, possibly hardly surprising that they would vote for maintenance of the status quo.¹ In Scotland, 16 and 17 year olds will, yet again, be able to vote – this time in the Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2016 and in local elections from 2017 – but not in UK-wide votes. If we are to avoid a two-tier system of citizenship in the United Kingdom, 16 and 17 year olds across the UK have to be enfranchised. The vote ought to have been granted to 16 and 17 year olds so that they too, in Cameron’s words, ‘… will hold this country’s destiny in [their] hands’. After all, in all likelihood, the outcome of this plebiscite will impact upon young people and their futures for a far longer period of time than it will those of us old enough to remember the last time the UK voted on continued membership of Europe. The £9 million found in the coffers to send the leaflet illustrates that the debate was never really about money!
¹ In a recent poll, 53% of 18–34s would vote to stay in the EU, compared with 54% of the over 55s who would vote to leave. Apathy appears to be an issue, however, in that only 52% of the 18-34s are certain to vote, compared with 81% of the over 55s (see Opinium/Observer Poll 2nd April 2016).