Lower the voting age to 16

Union Matters

Young people aged 16 and 17 are just as capable of formulating a view on the issues that affect them and their futures as the over-18’s and should be allowed to vote in all UK national and local elections and referendums.

That was the near unanimous view of delegates at CWU Annual Conference, which voted by an overwhelming majority to commit the union to throw its weight behind an increasing clamour of demands for a lowering of the voting age.

Proposing the motion, Joanne Shaftoe of Tyne and Wear Clerical branch pointed out that the voting age already stands at 16 in Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Scotland – and that the Wales Act of 2017 already gives the Welsh Assembly the power to lower the voting age for its elections.

Stressing that young people are more informed than ever before about the issues that matter to them in the age of social media, Joanne argued it is now “impossible to justify the automatic and blanket exclusion of 16 and 17-year-olds from the right to vote.”

Dismissing arguments that the under 18’s ‘don’t really care about politics’, Joanne insisted that, conversely, “reducing the age of voter eligibility to 16 will serve as a kick-start in the promotion of politics to young people and generate an even greater interest and awareness of, and participation in, politics at an early age.”

Just one of the 11 branches that spoke in debate – West Yorkshire – took the alternative view, questioning whether 16-year-olds have the all-round maturity and life experience to make balanced decisions on complex issues.

Responding to the counter-argument that in the UK 16-year-olds can already enter into marriage and civil partnerships or join the army, West Yorkshire branch chair Frances Burke pointed out they can do neither without parental consent. Neither, she argued, can they leave full-time education in England, buy alcohol and cigarettes, watch an X-rated film, take out a mortgage, be sent to prison, drive a car or sit on a jury.

“As for joining the armed forces, it should also be noted that the UK practice of allowing 16-yerar-olds to be recruited has been criticised by the UN Committee on the Rights of a Child and many children’s charities,” she noted.

“16-year-olds are still minors and making them adults is not necessarily a positive step.”

Every other speaker robustly disagreed, however, with several pointing out that had 16 and 17-year-olds been able to vote in the Brexit referendum the outcome – which will disproportionately affect those with their whole lives ahead of them – would almost certainly have been different.

Others pointed out that arguments questioning the ‘maturity of the teenage brain’ were eerily reminiscent of some of the patently absurd claims made by opponents of women’s suffrage at the start of the 20th Century.

“In the past a man would probably have stood here and said exactly the same thing about women – that our brains are not as developed as our male counterparts,” stressed Catrin Herdman of Nottingham & District branch.

Beth Slater of Kingston Area branch agreed. “This year is the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People’s Act, and it seems to me that some of the opposition to women getting the vote back then used the same arguments we are hearing now – that they were somehow not engaged enough or informed enough.”

Delegates agreed, backing the demand for a lowering of the voting age by a massive majority.

Soundbites from the debate:


John Brown, Scotland region secretary: “The people who are going to be the most affected by the disgraceful and diabolical referendum we had on Brexit were excluded from the vote. That was wrong then and it is still wrong now.”


Scott Hartles, Scotland No.2: “In terms of the referendum on Scottish independence, although I despise the Question Time programme the best episode I watched was the 16v to 17-year-old specific one. There was some great debate and the engagement of young people has really reinvigorated politics in Scotland.’


Jordan Hartley, Kent Invicta: “As people get older the rational part of their brain diminishes in some people, so by the same logic (that 16 and 17-olds are somehow not ‘developed enough’ to vote) we should be lowering the maximum voting age! Questioning people’s capacity to vote is dangerous.” 


Paul Moffatt, Eastern region secretary: “You could flip this argument on its head. If 16-year-olds aren’t old enough to be allowed to vote, then why is anyone over 60 allowed? You could have the exact same argument – but that is a point of discrimination and I’m quite outraged about it. The fact is that we wouldn’t have been in the mess we are in with Brexit now had 16-year-olds been given the vote!”


Steve Jones, NEC member, supporting the motion on behalf of the Executive: “One of the most compelling arguments was from my 14-year-old daughter who, when I asked her what she thought, said: ‘Of course we should get the vote – we’ll have to live with the consequences of the decisions you have made and you’ll be long gone by the time we have to pick up the pieces.’ And you know what, she’s got a point. It’s a common misconception to believe that somehow wisdom can only evolve with age and experience – but when it comes to the future of humanity and the planet we don’t have to look far to see what a complete and utter mess recent generations have left for future generations. We have no right to deny young people a say in their future”