Lord Foulkes: One and a half million young people are being denied a say on their future

Posted On: 
10th September 2018

A million and a half young people have turned 18 since the 2016 EU referendum – and they must be given a chance to vote on their future, argues Lord Foulkes

Our Future, Our Choice protest outside Chequers during the government's Brexit cabinet meeting in July

David Cameron played fast and loose with the UK Constitution. Not once, but twice. He gave in to Alex Salmond and agreed to a Referendum on Scottish independence where the SNP were allowed to choose the date, the wording of the question and the franchise.

Thankfully the separatists lost, but it came perilously close to breaking up the UK and the campaign for independence continues emboldened.

Then he believed, wrongly as it turns out, that he could mend the split in the Tory party by agreeing to a referendum on the EU. He was so complacent and believed victory for Remain would be easy that he turned down all attempts at safeguarding.

In neither referendum was there a threshold, so a simple majority could overturn the stability of decades or centuries. Even the Muirfield Golf Club needed a two thirds majority to change their constitution to admit women.

But there was one important difference between the Scottish and EU referendums. In Scotland the franchise included 16 and 17-year-olds, EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens overseas. So every adult who would be affected by the result had a vote.

In contrast, EU citizens in the UK, who contribute to our economy with their taxes, and UK citizens overseas whose lives will be more affected by the decision to leave the EU than the rest of us, were denied a vote.

But perhaps the greatest injustice was the refusal to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year olds, who will be affected by the disaster of leaving the EU for far longer than those of us in our 70s.

Although the referendum was advisory the government foolishly took it to be an “instruction” from the British people and, eventually, started the procedure and negotiation for withdrawal.

The effect of this decision is becoming clearer day by day. Some of the negative aspects – job losses, flight of EU institutions and failure to invest have already occurred. But we will eventually know the terms of a “deal” if it is agreed with the EU or whether there is no deal.

The key question then arises. Who decides? Normally in a Parliamentary democracy it would be Parliament and there is a case for that which some people still argue.

However, although I have grown increasingly sceptical on the efficacy of referendums, since the procedure was started by a referendum the argument that it should be concluded by a referendum decision is compelling. That is why there is a growing powerful case for a “People’s Vote” on the terms.

There are, however, questions that arise from that. What options would be put to the people? I will strongly argue that we should be allowed to vote on an option to Remain in the EU. Whether that is against a deal or no deal remains to be seen.

The franchise could come up for debate. Although there is a powerful argument for extending the franchise to include those who were able to vote in the Scottish Referendum, this could be seen by the Leavers as changing the rules in mid process.

There are, however, many compelling arguments for a people’s vote on the outcome of negotiations. The interference and illegality in the Leave campaign in the last referendum and the need to now make a decision on the result of the negotiations rather than claims are two of the many reasons.

However the most important reason, and the one I am raising in the Lords at Question Time, is that there are nearly a million and a half people who have attained the age of 18 who were not able to vote in the 2016 Referendum.

They include one of my grandchildren, Blair. The decision is more important for him than for me as he will have to live with it for decades. He should be given a chance to vote on his future along with all his contemporaries.

I don’t know how he, or the others, will vote but there is a question of democratic justice that they should not be denied a say in their future.   

Lord Foulkes is a Labour peer. His Oral Question is on Monday 10 September