Yesterday, two very different things happened around the same issue in Scotland and England.
At 4:22pm in Westminster, during a debate on the EU Referendum Bill, MPs voted 310-265 against giving 16 and 17 year olds a say in the referendum.
40 minutes later up in the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, MSPs voted unanimously in favour of the Bill which promises votes at 16 for all Scottish elections. What is going on here?
The Electoral Reform Society has long argued that the franchise should be extended to include 16 and 17 year olds. This is about engaging more people in our democracy – educated teenagers, thousands of whom are interested in politics and want a voice. So we were obviously delighted that yesterday Holyrood gave young people the opportunity to participate in all Scottish elections. But Westminster’s refusal to do so for the European referendum is a massive missed opportunity indeed – and furthers the division between England and Scotland.
Wales too will soon get votes at 16 and 17, with the current Wales Bill going through set to devolve powers over the franchise to Cardiff Bay.
The UK government should follow Scotland’s – and soon Wales’ - example, allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the upcoming EU referendum. Why?
One reason is, quite simply, the Scottish independence referendum showed when young people are given a say, they use it.
16 and 17 year olds threw themselves wholeheartedly into the Scottish referendum, with 75% voting and 97% saying they would vote in future elections. Even those opposed to extending the franchise for the referendum now agree that they participated with enthusiasm and made valuable contributions to the debate.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson MSP has said that her position changed to support an extension of the franchise after watching and debating in front of 16 and 17 year olds throughout the referendum – including stadiums and theatres packed full of school students eager to get involved. Moreover, research undertaken by Jan Eichhorn at the University of Edinburgh found that young people accessed more information from a wider variety of sources than any other age-group.
But after yesterday’s Westminster vote, it would be a gross generational injustice if the very same young people will get a vote in all Scottish elections, but not the vote on Britain’s membership of the EU. For ermine-robed Lords to be specifically allowed to vote but not the generation who helped bring such vitality to the Scottish Referendum would be an insult to those young people and democratic negligence at its worst.
Young Scots turned towards democracy and political action when they were given the chance. Up to that point young voters across the UK were turning their backs on formal party politics. The politicians who saw this should bear witness in Westminster and ensure 16 and 17 year olds are enfranchised not just in Scotland but across the country.
We hope MPs will rethink the decision to exclude well over a million young people from the upcoming EU referendum. There is still time for this decision to be reversed while the Bill is going through, particularly after yesterday’s precedent-setting example in Holyrood when Scottish MSPs voted to extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds.
One thing is clear - Westminster shouldn’t let this become an issue which drives a wedge between the nations of the UK. 16 and 17 year olds deserve a vote in the EU referendum, not just in Scottish elections.
Nonetheless, yesterday’s Holyrood vote shows the way towards a fair franchise. It’s just a shame Westminster missed the opportunity - although there will be more votes on reform, particularly with the EU Referendum Bill soon going to the Lords, where peers are expected to call for votes at 16.
We need a three pronged approach: extending the franchise, expanding voter registration, and educating young people about politics. All three go hand in hand, and would allay any worries of a lack of readiness to vote at 16. When given a voice in Scotland, young people educated themselves. A national programme of citizenship education would extend this even further.
Finally, we need a UK-wide franchise which is open, democratic and which sends a positive message to our young people that their opinions genuinely count - a genuinely ‘one nation’ franchise which engages our young people, instead of excluding them. This EU referendum is still a real chance to follow the success of the Scottish referendum in giving 16 and 17 year olds a say in a decision which will massively impact their futures. There’s still a strong possibility those young people will indeed be heard next year.