Lisa Francis reflects on the Conservative case for supporting votes at 16
Last year, my dad died at the age of 88. Losing a parent is something of a watershed moment in anyone’s life, and it got me thinking very much about his own life. Born in 1929, he had to wait until he was 21 before he cast his first vote.
At 14 he was already out at work, had lost his own father and was using his earnings to contribute to his family’s living costs. By the time he’d reached 16, I have no doubt he would have been mature enough to know how he wanted to cast his ballot. I have no doubt either, that he would have exercised that right should it have been allowed.
In the wake of last year’s report of the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform, which recommended the minimum voting age for Welsh Assembly elections be changed to 16, as a Welsh Conservative Chairman, I found myself discussing the proposal with party members.
Many of those I met (in their seventies and eighties) were quick to conclude that: ‘16 is far too young to vote’. Until, that is, they started to think about their own lives and what they had been doing at 16.
Just like my dad, many were already in full-time employment, ‘courting seriously’ (just love that expression!), or about to embark on National Service.
‘So, would you have been mature enough to vote?’, I asked them.
Most responded they probably were.
And from a political perspective, if Welsh Conservatives choose not to support votes for 16-year-olds, then other parties will use this as stick with which to beat us – one can already see the tweets:
‘Miserable Tory dinosaurs trample over youth rights’, etc, and frankly, who could blame them?
It cannot be right that we currently have different voting rights in different parts of the UK.
And not just between Wales/Scotland and the rest of the UK: within the Conservative Party it frankly makes no sense at all that some senior Conservatives bang on about 16-year-olds not being mature enough to vote, when the party’s own rules allow 16- and 17-year-olds to become full members of the Party – which includes voting rights in party leadership contests!
Looking again at Scotland, in 2015 Holyrood passed a bill allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in Scottish Parliamentary and local elections, doing so with the support of Conservative MSPs.
The Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, said at the time:
“The democratic effect turned out to be entirely positive. Surveys before the vote showed that 16- and 17-year-olds had the exact same concerns as everyone else, the economy prime among them”.
If 16-year-olds got the vote, would they turn out?
Professor Mark Franklin, who chaired the Advisory Board of the British Election Study 2015, showed whether a person votes the first time they are eligible has a considerable effect on whether they adopt a voting habit thereafter.
And the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform states there are good reasons for establishing the habit of voting at a young age, when many young people are still living at home, leading to increased turnout in the longer term. If enfranchising 16-year-olds increases the proportion of voters who do vote first time, turnout would rise in the long run.
Aside from the considerable evidence on the civic benefits of extending the franchise – from Austria to Scotland – for me this issue is a no-brainer.
If you are old enough to get a national insurance number, join a trade union, leave school, join the armed forces, make a baby and change your name by deed poll, then you are certainly old enough to vote.
This is about Conservative principles. So I’ll leave the final word here with Scottish Conservative MP John Lamont, who sensibly said:
“The Conservative party believes in individual responsibility and civic duty – and what better way to extend a sense of civic duty than to give more UK citizens the right to vote?”
This essay originally appeared in the Electoral Reform Society’s report, Civic Duty – The Conservative Case for Votes at 16 and 17.
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