From education to employment

Votes For 16-17-Year Olds Or National Service At 18?

Stephen Lambert

Current Political Landscape

The Labour Party and minor parties like the Lib-Dems and the Greens are signed up to reduce the voting age to 16 to boost electoral turn-out in an age of declining participation in public affairs: what experts dub as the ”democratic deficit”. In contrast, the Conservative Party offers compulsory National Service at 18.

Youth Voter Turnout

In the last general election held in 2019, less than 50 per cent of young adults aged 18 to 24 voted. Half didn’t bother, for a variety of reasons, ranging from apathy, lack of knowledge of the issues, or what the principal parties stand for, alienation, anomie, or the perception that all the major political parties had nothing meaningful to say to young people. Nothing could be further from the truth; but perceptions still shape reality.

The Need for Change

We need a wake-up call, if representative democracy is to survive throughout the twenty first century. In 1969 Harold Wilson lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Now Labour Leader Keir Starmer is calling for the voting age to be reduced to 16 to boost voter turn-out, give young people a real say and to strengthen the UK’s liberal democracy.

Support for Lowering the Voting Age

The UK Youth Parliament’s campaign to reduce the voting age is backed by thousands of young people across the nation. There are several places where 16 and 17-year olds have the legal right to vote, such as the Isle of Man, Jersey, Austria, Brazil, federal elections in Germany, Hungary and close to home Scotland and Wales – for local council elections.

Youth Engagement in Politics

A growing number of 16 and 17-year-olds are knowledgeable, and sometimes quite passionate, about the world they live in especially over Gazza and climate change. Few are in favour of mandatory National Service. They are as capable of engaging in the democratic system as any other citizen. The number of learners following GCE A-level Government and Politics courses in British sixth forms and further education colleges has soared, with more Scottish undergraduate students following Political Science degrees.

Benefits of Lowering the Voting Age

Lowering the voting age to 16, combined with a strong civics programme for the post-modern era, would empower young people to better engage in their communities and influence decisions that will define their futures.

Arguments for Voting Rights at 16

People who can consent to medical treatment, give blood, work, become a company director, pay taxes and National Insurance, get married or enter a civil partnership and join the armed forces should also have the right to vote. Similar arguments drove the reduction in voting age from 21 to 18 in the UK in 1969 and in most other European countries in the late 20th century.

Addressing Counterarguments

Other age groups aren’t penalised for lack of knowledge or engagement in politics by being denied the vote, so it doesn’t make sense that 16 and17 year-olds should have to be ”model citizens” in order to gain the right to vote.

Civic Engagement and Youth Participation

Many experts believe that voting at 16 in all elections would improve ‘civic engagement’. Young adults are more ‘politically active’ than other age groups. More youngsters take up volunteering activities than middle-aged citizens, and are more likely to get involved in single-issue campaigns, often around environmental or animal rights and protection.

Comparison with Older Voters

The fact remains, older people are more likely to vote in general, devolved authority, local elections and referenda. Turn-out among pensioners is over 76 per cent, according to data collated by YouGov, the polling organisation, after the 2019 election.

Long-term Benefits of Early Voting

Likewise, the national campaign movement Votes at 16 point out that allowing people to vote earlier will help address voter apathy. According to one expert, Professor Breeze, people who can vote earlier are more likely to vote again. It becomes a central feature of their ‘political socialisation’ process. It worked well in Scotland in their independence referendum in 2014 where over three-quarters of young Scots aged under 21 voted – thousands of whom were under 18.


With gradual extensions to the franchise over the last 130 years, giving all men and women the right to vote, the time to lower the voting age to include all 16 and 17-year olds ( about 1.6m people) across the UK is now.

By Stephen Lambert, director of the citizenship community interest company – Education4Democracy.

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