Last Friday in the House of Commons, MPs debated lowering the voting age to 16 in the second reading of a private members’ bill introduced by Labour MP Jim McMahon. Officially titled The Representation of the People (Young People’s Enfranchisement and Education) Bill, if passed it would give 16 and 17 year-olds the right to vote in UK parliamentary elections, local elections and referendums.
"We expect people to continue in education or training until the age of 18, and I think that is the right point for the voting age." Theresa May, Prime Minister
The second reading is an opportunity for MPs to debate the main principles of a Bill before voting whether it should move onto the next stage. However, time ran out before a vote could be called. Jim McMahon accused Conservative MPs of purposely prolonging the previous debate on the Mental Health Units Bill to cut short the time left for this discussion.
This sparked a series of criticisms from both sides of the debate concerning the supposed manipulation of the voting system. The government were accused of trying to narrow the franchise in relation to plans earlier this year to bring in a law requring voters to show ID at polling stations.
Critics of a lower voting age complain that left-wing parties want to increase the youth vote for their own benefit, on the basis that young people are more attracted to left-wing parties. Possible evidence for this was this year’s general election, where young people voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Labour Party. However, in the Commons McMahon remained adamant that this bill is for the benefit of young people and is not about “gaming the system”.
Another concern about lowering the voting age is that most 16 and 17 year-olds are not yet politically informed enough to vote. To deal with such concerns, the bill includes an amendment to the national curriculum to ensure that children are politically educated at secondary school to make an informed decision by the time they are 16.
The Bill does have cross-party backing from the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Green Party.
There is even some support from within the Conservative Party, notably from Ruth Davidson, the party’s leader in Scotland, where 16 and 17 year-olds were granted the vote in parliamentary and local elections in 2015.
This decision has been praised for helping young people in Scotland engage with politics. The vote for people aged 16 and 17 is also being considered in Wales.
Debate on the bill is set to resume in December, although it has been speculated that it has little chance of receiving any time for further consideration because it is so low on the political agenda, as well as the fact that the government does not back the idea.
Earlier this year, at the Prime Minister’s Question Time, Theresa May said: “We expect people to continue in education or training until the age of 18, and I think that is the right point for the voting age.”