Wales has given its young people a voice and it’s time for Westminster to catch up

Thousands of 16- and 17-year olds will be able to vote in Welsh elections from 2021. Westminster risks alienating students and young people if it doesn’t follow suit, writes Rob Simkins


In exactly a week’s time, people the length and breadth of Wales will be wrapping up warm and getting out to vote in the most important general election for decades – and the coldest, if reports are to be believed.


This election will undoubtedly set our country’s course for years to come. And on the biggest issues at stake, the major parties have never been further apart. We have a genuine choice to make at the ballot box on 12 December, so it’s more important than ever that we all have our say.


And make no mistake, the choices we make at this general election will impact young people most of all. The parties’ policies on Brexit are the most contrasting, ranging from a preference of no deal to the immediate revocation of Article 50 – and everything in between.


Everyone has an opinion on Brexit – I’m the president of the National Union of Students in Wales, and I was elected to represent every single student in our country. The majority of students, and young people in general, backed remain in 2016 and are now calling for People’s Vote on Brexit with the option to remain on the table. It’s only right that the people who Brexit will affect the most – many of whom were too young to vote in 2016 – get a final say. 


We’re encouraging students and young people to engage in democracy; to read the parties’ manifestos, to give themselves the chance to make an informed decision, and – most importantly – to get out to vote on 12 December. 


There are certainly encouraging signs. Since the election was called, 2.6 million 18- to 34-year olds have registered to vote. The youth vote boomed at the 2017 election and all the signs are there that it’ll happen again. Young people, contrary to what those in the media might have you think, are engaging in politics and driving the debate like never before, and in more ways than ever.


Young people in Wales claimed a major victory last week. Politicians in the National Assembly for Wales recognised calls from the Votes at 16 campaign by passing a law giving 16- and 17-year olds the vote in Senedd elections. The Welsh Government has also introduced legislation to introduce the same measures in local council elections. So from 2021, 16-year olds will be able to vote in national elections in Wales for the first time ever. 


And votes at 16 aren’t exactly new to the UK; Scotland gave their 16-year olds the vote in national elections back in 2015. The devolved nations of the UK are once again leading the way on progressive democracy leaving England to play catch-up. 


But while Scotland and Wales have taken giant leaps towards more inclusive democracies, young people in those nations remain locked out of Westminster elections. It’s time for lawmakers in London to follow the lead of the devolved parliaments and gives us votes at 16 in UK general elections, otherwise Westminster risks further alienating young people and pushing them away from UK politics.


Today has been dubbed ‘Democracy Day’ by the Electoral Reform Society, who are highlighting a “crisis of legitimacy” in our democratic processes, and the need to reform the system. 


There are certainly major problems with UK democracy. Our constitution – or lack thereof – fails to reflect the realities of devolution, the first-past-the-post system is deeply flawed, and then there’s the unelected House of Lords. 


There’s widespread recognition that our democracy needs to change, but these vital reforms have been sidelined at this election by more pressing political topics. 


But votes at 16 have become a more mainstream issue – and they feature in all of the major parties’ manifestos. The Greens, Labour, Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru all back extending the franchise, while the Conservatives and Brexit Party favour the status quo.  


Regardless of what happens next Thursday, it’s hard to see a scenario where votes at 16 don’t eventually become the UK norm. The direction of travel has been well and truly set by the devolved governments, and sooner or later England needs to follow suit. 


16-year olds are expected to pay taxes. They’re regarded as mature enough to make crucial life choices, such as getting married or joining the army. So why, in the 21st century, are young people still discriminated against when it comes to voting?


If you’re over 18 and able to vote in this election, spare a thought for the 16- and 17-year olds who won’t be able to have their say on the most important issue of our time. And whoever you are – student, young person, not-so-young person, unemployed, overworked, underpaid – make sure your voice is heard on 12 December.


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Rob Simkins is the president of NUS Wales

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