THE EU referendum is the most important vote in Britain in a generation. It will influence the UK for the rest of the century. Everything from Scottish secession to peace in Northern Ireland to the international economy are involved. It is a national disgrace that 16 and 17-year-olds will be denied a vote on their country’s future. It’s no surprise that the Conservative government has opposed votes for young people. They’ve done the electoral arithmetic. Young people are not sympathetic to Tories, and who can blame them? The exclusion of under-25s from the National Living Wage is just the most recent attack on working youth.
There is nothing more worrying for a conservative (small ‘c’) government than a mobilised, politically savvy younger generation. Youth and liberal ideas go hand in hand. In Britain, the treacherous hike in university fees and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn have bookended the rise of a youthful political agenda. Campus activism is growing steadily and the number of workers under 18 paying taxes is rising. As the SNP’s Mhairi Black’s explosive maiden speech in the Commons proved, disenfranchised youth are tired of being ignored.
This is not just a British issue. All over the democratic world, austerity has hit young people hard. Education is more expensive and less accessible, work doesn’t pay fairly, and adversarial social welfare systems make unemployed youths jump through hoops to earn their entitlements. Politics is catching up. Bernie Sanders in America, Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland and Justin Trudeau in Canada have successfully channelled young voters who see a political establishment set against them. Ageism is politically acceptable if it’s aimed at the young. Policies pushing unpaid work placements and fewer employment rights for the young are dog whistles of parties vying for the reliable grey vote at the expense of the upcoming generation.
Under-18s not only deserve the vote as a basic right, but extending the franchise would improve politics, too. If you’re old enough to work, pay taxes, join the army and go to jail, you’re old enough to vote. Young people are less susceptible to prejudice, as studies consistently prove younger generations are less likely to be racist or sexist. They are also less set in their ways, meaning they are more likely to be swayed by argument and change their vote accordingly rather than vote for one party at every election just because they can’t bring themselves to support another. But even if 16 and 17-year-olds didn’t add anything useful and new to elections, it would still be shameful not to let them vote in the EU referendum at the very least. Someone who is 16 in 2017 won’t be able on EU membership, but the rights and opportunities available to her will be affected by the decision for decades. Can being one or two years off your 18th birthday really justify excluding you from an immense national decision? And what about a woman aged 17 years and 10 months who’s been working for two years? Should she be denied a vote?
It’s ironic that the young people the government has refused to enfranchise are more likely to support EU membership than not, just as David Cameron does. But the Conservatives are afraid of opening the floodgates of youth voting. Democracies will not be able to deny working-aged people voting rights much longer. The combination of internet activism and unfair policies imposed by greying 20th century politicians will create demands for a voice for youth. It’s time to give them that voice.