Jim McMahon: Give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to choose their government
Half a century after the voting age was last lowered, Brexit has reopened the debate. Ahead of his Private Member’s Bill to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, Jim McMahon tells Elizabeth Bates why young people are fighting to make their voices heard
In a Commons debate on lowering the voting age MPs arguing for change declared simply that “there should be no taxation without representation”.
That was in 1968, a year before legislation was passed allowing 18-year-olds to vote for the first time.
Almost fifty years on, Labour MP Jim McMahon is making the same argument ahead of the second reading of his Private Member’s Bill, which is set for debate on the 3rd November.
The Representation of the People (Young People’s Enfranchisement and Education) Bill would extend the franchise once more, giving 16 and 17-year-olds the right to choose their government.
Speaking in his Westminster office, the shadow minister gives the same compelling pitch his predecessors did half a century ago: “At 16 you are liable to pay direct taxation for the first time and if you are paying direct tax then you ought to have a say in the government that spends it on your behalf – simple as that.”
It is the reduction in age that will grab headlines and energise the campaign, but the majority of the text, he says, will focus on the creation of a “proper system of citizenship and political education in schools.”
The changes are designed to silence those that have dismissed young people as poorly informed, but as McMahon points out, that is often unconnected to age. “Let’s be honest we’ve seen in the [EU] referendum there are more people who seemed to be attracted to the text on the side of a bus than actually read the booklet that went through all the letter boxes.”
But while the EU referendum may not have been the pinnacle of reasoned debate, it brought the long simmering issue of voting age to the boil once again.
In the wake of the Scottish referendum that pioneered votes at 16 in the UK, a Lords amendment was put to Parliament. It would have given 16 and 17-year-olds a say on the UK’s future relationship with the EU but failed to gain the backing of David Cameron’s government.
It is a decision Remain supporting Tories may now regret, with subsequent polls showing it could have tipped the result in their favour, saving some high-profile political careers in the process.
Despite this, the Conservative position is unchanged, as Theresa May confirmed at ahead of June’s snap general election. “You have to pick a point at which you think it is right for the voting age to be,” she said. “I continue to think it is right for it to be 18.”
However, the latest Bill has received cross-party support, with former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and long-time campaigner on the issue Sir Peter Bottomley among the signatories.
On this, Sir Peter and his usual parliamentary advisories are in uncharacteristic agreement.
“When people register to vote at 16, the average age of first voting in a general election will be 18. That is sensible and appropriate,” he says.
“The arguments against are familiar: they were heard before the 1832, 1867 and other Reform Bills. Actually voting is voluntary; maintaining a prohibition until 18 is unnecessary.
“To the remaining doubters, I recommend listening to the speakers when the Youth Parliament takes over the Commons chamber each year.
“I believe that the decision on how to vote can be balancing self-interest with the wider public interest. The sooner that starts, the better. It is unconvincing to say that some aged 16 and 17 are not interested or that they lack judgment. That can be said for proportions of people at any age.”
Unusually for a Private Member’s Bill it has also been formally endorsed by the Labour leadership.
And while engaging young voters may be an ongoing problem for much of the political establishment, it is something that has come naturally to Jeremy Corbyn.
Young people descended on polling stations in their droves in June to back Corbyn’s Labour, driving the party’s surprising surge in support.
“The Conservatives weren’t on the pitch,” explains McMahon, “and so it left the Labour party able to determine the nature and tone of the debate. I think for any political party to do that is a naïve and ridiculous strategy.
“Beyond that, people want to know that those in politics, people who are making decisions, are in it for the right reasons. And I think we’re in danger sometimes of all looking and sounding the same and Jeremy doesn’t look and sound like other politicians.
“He has an authenticity that appeals to people. I think for young people that were cynical about politics and thought it didn’t matter to them or that their voice wasn’t important, I think they felt that Jeremy was able to connect with them.”
For the Oldham MP, encouraging young people’s political engagement began early in his career, when as the leader of Oldham Local Authority he gave new powers to the youth council.
So it seemed fitting, he says, to once again give them a voice when he was drawn in the Private Member’s Bill ballot.
“I called a meeting of the youth council and said look ‘I’ve been selected for this Bill’… We talked for nearly three hours on the tactics of what a Private Member’s Bill is…
“We arrived at votes at 16 as a really more considered position about the role of 16 and 17-year-olds in society, and how they felt as though their voices weren’t being heard by decision-makers. Not just on youth issues but on issues that affect the whole of society. Their voice was often excluded from those types of debate.”
He describes the process as bringing democracy “home to Oldham”.
Whether he can also bring back a change in the law to his hometown now depends on winning over Westminster.
This article first appeared in The House magazine