This week, parliament will have the first opportunity to consider a Private Members’ Bill put forward by Labour MP, Jim McMahon. Officially named the Representation of The People (Young People’s Enfranchisement and Education) Bill, if passed, it will bring UK General Elections in line with Scottish elections in allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote. I will be in Parliament on Friday to support the Bill and if MPs get the opportunity to vote on this issue, it will be one of the easiest votes I have ever cast.
Ask anyone who campaigned in the Scottish Independence Referendum and they will tell you how remarkably informed and engaged young people were in that debate. In elections since I have chapped on many doors where a young person is about to cast their first vote. I always find them to be refreshingly open-minded and keen to take the time to think about the issues and consider each candidate and party on merit.
It is a view that was reinforced for me last week when I visited Higher Modern Studies students at Cathkin High School. We covered the full range of issues from taxation and welfare to the constitution and the monarchy, each question carefully thought out and each student genuinely interested in the answer. It is absurd to think that at 16 or 17 you could be married, join the army, or have a full-time job and pay tax, but the Prime Minister doesn’t trust you enough to decide who your local MP should be.
Unfortunately, the Conservatives seem unlikely to support the Bill. It will be interesting to hear what arguments they put forward. The answer to their scepticism may be found in current opinion polls. 63 per cent of voters aged 18-24 now say they back Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May knows that extending the franchise to include 16 and 17-year-olds is likely to further boost Labour’s prospects of forming the next government. I suspect one day we will look back and find it remarkable that 16 and 17-year-olds were ever denied the right to vote, but the Tories would rather avoid facing that reality.
It is the same attitude they take to Opposition Day Debates, trying to avoid a vote to claim they haven’t been defeated. Labour was prepared for this tactic during the debate on pausing the rollout of Universal Credit, forcing a vote that resulted in an almost unprecedented Government defeat of 299 to 0. Unfortunately, the vote was non-binding, but the clearly expressed will of Parliament is that Universal Credit must be paused and fixed. The Government ignores that at its peril.
The truth is, the Tories are living on borrowed time. They treat parliament like a pantomime, relying on tactics and gimmicks and avoiding democracy at all costs. No one knows for sure when the next election will be, but today’s 16 and 17-year-olds will get to vote eventually and they are watching very carefully.