The voting age in Britain was last reduced nearly 40 years ago. Since then, there have been major changes in society's expectations of young people, and in young people's contribution to their local communities and wider society. Currently, 16 and 17 year-olds can work, pay taxes, join the armed forces and get married. They are often invited to set up school councils and youth councils, urged to take part in consultations, sit on local government and Ministerial boards, volunteer in their local community, keep out of trouble and work hard at school. Many will have caring responsibilities, a lot will have a job, some will be parents, and a minority will be leaving care or custody – but they cannot elect those who govern them.
A few years ago the Electoral Commission carried out a public consultation on the voting age which found that 72% of respondents were in favour lowering the voting age to 16. Interestingly the consultation attracted huge participation including 8,000 young people which suggests that when issues are made relevant to them, young people are more likely to vote and engage in matters of public importance. If the Government is to successfully deliver on its promise of helping to create more sustainable communities then it must ensure that all members of the community are fully engaged in the shaping and delivery of local services. Young people represent an important proportion of that agenda.I strongly believe that as a nation we must take the aspirations and desires of young voters much more seriously. Rather than young people being disinterested in politics (as opposed to voting), the more real danger is that we have become uninterested in them. We bolt on campaigns for young voters rather than build them into what we do. This needs to change, and we now have a once in a generation chance to make that change and listen to what young people are saying. We should dispense with old political assumptions and acknowledge that we are dealing with a different generation.
A first-time voter in a 2010 general election was leaving nursery school when Labour came to power in 1997. To them we seem like the establishment. I also believe that the divide between organised politics and young people is a symptom of a wider disenchantment. People who feel alienated have little trust in the institutions of our society. This adds to the wider sense of disaffection and makes it more difficult for our politics to work. Surely young people’s belief in politics could only be helped by them knowing that they had a direct influence in choosing who represents them. In Austria - where they recently lowered the voting age to 16 - in the last local and regional elections the turnout amongst 16 and 17 year olds was close to 75%.
The most effective means of achieving all of this is to lower the voting age to 16 and the sooner we do so the better.