Photographer Holly Falconer

Why 16 and 17-year-olds deserve the right to vote

Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs Cat Smith makes Labour’s case for lowering the voting age.

by Cat Smith
18 November 2019, 11:00am

Photographer Holly Falconer

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The 2017 general election was a defining moment for young people’s engagement with politics, with the highest youth turnout since 1992. Every indication about the upcoming election -- from the numbers of young people coming out to canvass to those saying they plan to vote -- suggests this trend is continuing. The myth of young people being disengaged or even apathetic has been well and truly shattered.

Yet a considerable number of young people -- including 43% of 18 and 19 year-olds -- did not vote in 2017 and almost one-third of people aged 18-34 are missing from the electoral roll. Add to that the 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds living in the UK who can’t vote, and it’s clear we cannot be complacent about recent gains. A huge chunk of the generation that will be affected most by political decisions made today still don’t have a say on their own future.

This is especially troubling when a whole swathe of young people are growing up with the heartbreaking expectation that they will be worse off than their parents. The comforting idea of intergenerational progress is no longer a reality -- insecure jobs, stagnating wages, crippling student debt and ever-increasing housing prices have put paid to that.

Young people today face new and devastating challenges, from mental ill-health and chronic levels of loneliness to environmental degradation and the impending climate catastrophe. The Resolution Foundation recently warned that young people today are on course to pay more and receive less from our education, health and social security systems than any other post-war generation. Public spending targeted at young people has been one of the hardest hit areas under Tory-led governments, with funding for youth services in England cut by £1 billion since 2010, a reduction of 73%. Nearly 15,000 youth and community worker jobs have been lost in just 11 years and over 750 youth centres have closed their doors since 2012.

Young Labour members have made sure their voices are heard within our party -- I am proud that votes at 16 has been Labour party policy since 2008. Among 16 and 17-year-olds across the UK, support is substantial, with 71% in favour and only 12% opposed. Recent research from Survation for the Leverhulme Trust indicates a shift in attitudes among the voting age population too, with more in favour than opposed.

"Teenagers are at the forefront of climate protests around the world, leading the demands for better mental health care and the fight against the growing far right."

The world has changed. We already have votes at 16 in Wales and Scotland. Today it is the younger generation that is leading the way in active citizenship both online and through direct action. Teenagers are at the forefront of climate protests around the world, leading the demands for better mental health care and the fight against the growing far right.

Brexit will affect all of our futures but again, it is young people who will arguably see the greatest impact to their lives. Labour is the only party that is offering a final say within six months of taking office and crucially under Labour, 16 and 17-year-olds will have a vote in this future referendum.

Yet instead of being supported and valued, young people continue to have their voices ignored by this government. Conventional politics remains inaccessible for millions of young people, limited to the wealthy and connected few. We still have a hugely disproportionate number of MPs educated at private schools and with Oxbridge degrees in Parliament, backgrounds that are in no way representative of the wider public. We need action.

In 2017 we took our positive message directly to voters, with 63% of young people voting Labour as a result. I am incredibly proud of our record, and this time our ambitions are even greater.

Together with Jeremy Corbyn, I launched our comprehensive youth manifesto Only Young Once in October this year, which committed us to introducing legislation to guarantee quality youth services and giving our councils the funding they need to invest in our public services. We will open up our democracy to a generation of young people by extending the voting age to 16.

This election is an opportunity to ensure that the voices of young people are heard loud and clear. Make sure yours is one of them.

General Election
Election 2019