There are 35 constituencies in England and Wales where at least 20% of the voting age population are between 18 and 24 years old; 17 of these were marginal seats in the 2010 election. Yet going on current statistics, this demographic is unlikely to have the dramatic impact it could on the upcoming general election, with only 44% of the age group voting in 2010. Clearly something needs to be done. The Institute for Public Policy Research recently recommended that young people should be forced to vote, yet this fails to tackle the root cause of the problem, a lack of political engagement. Reducing the voting age to 16 could provide a golden opportunity to engage voters in the political system from a younger age.
In the Scottish independence referendum last September, when the voting age was reduced to 16, 109,593 16 and 17 year olds voted. Clearly this was a vote with high participation across all age groups due to the general feeling that every vote would count in this opportunity to bring real change. Yet, the Scottish referendum did crucially manage to persuade 80% of 16 and 17 year olds to vote, providing key lessons for the General Election in May. It was not only the lowering of the voting age, but sustained campaigning, targeting young voters through youth debates which engaged this generation. Lowering the voting age alone is not a magic solution to political apathy among the young, but combined with other efforts, such as the compulsory teaching of politics in schools, it could be key in engaging the youth of today in politics for life. Opponents claim that 16 year olds don’t know enough about politics to be trusted with the vote. Lowering the voting age would be the perfect excuse to change this through education and engagement.
At 16 you can leave home, get married, pay taxes and even join the army, so why not vote? It is at this age that many begin to think about further education or a career, yet the key decisions on these issues are being made by politicians that young people did not vote for.
The failure to engage the younger generation has resulted in their interests being ignored by politicians. This vicious circle means that the age group is becoming increasingly disillusioned in the political process. 76% of over-65s voted in the 2010 general election, in comparison to a meagre 44% of 18-24 year olds. Looking at figures like these it is easy to see why issues affecting young people, such as youth unemployment and housing are neglected by politicians and the group are repeatedly let down over promises on university tuition fees. It is not surprising that the Conservatives promote policies like protecting the winter fuel allowance for pensioners, whilst ignoring the issues that affect young people, when this demographic is far more likely to vote.
Students could be key in swinging the vote in the May General Election. To ensure the powerful voice of today’s youth is heard we must engage them in the political process. Lowering the voting age, combined with a sustained effort to engage through education and debate is a key way we can do this.