In 1832, men aged 21 and over who met the correct property criteria were given the right to vote. It took until 1918 before women aged 30 and over were allowed to exercise this right. In 1970, the voting age for men and women was lowered from 21 to 18. Today, a private members’ bill from Jim McMahon goes before parliament which if passed, would lower the voting age for UK General Elections to 16.
It has been a long very difficult journey to get to this stage. Despite initial scepticism, 16 and 17-year olds were given the right to vote in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. Post referendum polling suggested that a higher proportion of 16 and 17-year olds exercised their right to vote than those aged 18-24, silencing the critics who claimed that young people would rather play video games than vote.
The argument that 16-year olds can work full-time, pay tax, claim benefits, get married and join the army but not vote is often repeated but it is useful in highlighting why there is now no good reason for the voting age not to be lowered to 16. We allow 16-year olds to be responsible members of society by working and contributing to the system yet we forbid them to have a say on these very issues that affect their daily lives.
We also allow young people to join the Labour party at age 14. You can hold an executive position in your constituency Labour party, attend conference as a delegate and campaign for candidates but you will not be able to actually vote for them on polling day. Back in my home CLP of Renfrewshire South, our campaign to elect Paul O’Kane to the Scottish parliament would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of our youngest activists.
I remember one activist in particular. She came along to the campaign launch, just two weeks after joining the party aged 14 after receiving an email about the event. A few days later she was knocking on doors for the first time. Within half an hour, she was doing this on her own, confidently articulating to voters who had previously backed other parties why we needed to elect a Labour candidate to the Scottish parliament. She came out with us almost every day for three months to help get O’Kane elected. There are scores of young activists who have an incredibly detailed knowledge of politics, but are denied from having a say in decisions that directly affect them until they are 18.
These young people are active members of society and display a nuanced understanding of the political system which shapes their lives. However, chances are this knowledge has not come from formal education at school – there is no opportunity to study politics as a standalone subject until A level in England and Wales. That is of course if there is a teacher available – with school budgets under increasing pressure from budget cuts, those in the most deprived areas are often the ones who lose out the most.
This must change. For too many young people, the only information they receive about politics is via social media. While we particularly excelled at reaching younger voters through Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat during the general election, this is no substitute for a basic education on politics at school. Our young people should leave school equipped for adulthood as informed citizens with the right to vote. The time has come for the voting age to be lowered to 16 – but let’s also use this opportunity to campaign for real political education in our schools.
Marian Craig is a member of the youth section on the Progress strategy board. This article is part of a guest edit of Progress today in support of reducing the voting age to 16. You can read all the #VotesAt16 articles here. Marian tweets at @MarianCraig