Votes at 16 is a matter of principle not expediency

Tom Harris, erstwhile Scottish Labour leader, thinks he is on to something.  His colleagues appear to concur.

The charge?  The SNP is trying to rig the referendum on independence!  For shame!

Let’s ignore for the moment, the fact that no bill has been drafted, no questions suggested, no electorate defined.   Every vague utterance by the First Minister, the Depute First Minister, or anyone connected to the leadership (Stephen Noon’s blogposts are forensically trawled in this regard) is seized upon by those of us with nothing better to do as offering clues to the approach to the referendum.  Two questions or three is the current dominant party game.

But now add into the mix the notion that the SNP will legislate to allow 16 year olds to vote in the referendum.  The Unionists smell a plot.  Younger voters aged 18 to 24 have for a long time been less constrained than their elders in their fullsome support for independence.  Something to do with the adventurous nature of youth – a step into the unknown being something to embrace rather than fret over.  Thus, the febrile minds of Tom Harris and others have determined, 16 – 18 year olds will be similarly minded to vote yes, ergo SNP plans to give them a vote is a cunning ruse to rig the result.

Actually no.  Extending the franchise in all elections to 16 year olds is longstanding SNP policy, formulated probably when Nicola Sturgeon, now Depute First Minister, Health Secretary and Scots parliamentarian of some twelve years’ standing, was a stripling in the Young Scots for Independence ranks.  If I recall rightly (possibly not) the policy was agreed – that is, democratically voted for by an annual conference of SNP delegates – while she was Vice Convenor Youth Affairs in the party.  And that is almost more years ago than I, or indeed she, will care to recall.

Unlike other parties, the SNP has always been pro-youth, acknowledging and valuing the role young adults have to play in our society as a whole.  Long before it was fashionable to do so, the SNP had a youth manifesto which the party was happy to promote, even when some commitments caused discomfit.  As the YSI was/is its own entity, it could promote more radical and exuberant proposals, with such youthful excesses tolerated by the parent body as a good thing.  Eventually, these firebrands grow up and wise up – Holyrood ranks comprising not only Sturgeon, Swinney, Hyslop and Robison but now also MacKay, Adam, Adamson, Eadie, Yousaf and Biagi can testify to that.

Allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote is longstanding SNP policy and principle and the SNP has previously signalled that it will use all legislative opportunities to extend the franchise.  That is why the Scottish Government in legislating for health board elections insisted that everyone from the age of sixteen be allowed to vote.  Indeed, it did so against an unholy alliance of Labour and Conservatives at Stage 3 of the bill.  This is what Cathy Jamieson MSP, then Labour health spokesperson, had to say in the debate:

I, too, rise to support the amendment in Ross Finnie’s name (which was effectively a probing amendment to tease out a commitment from the Health Secretary to address concerns about the operation of an extended franchise). I appreciate that a considerable amount of work has been done on the subject. As I said in an earlier debate, I am one of those in my party who is more relaxed about the idea of people voting at 16. That said, we should work with the electoral registration officers to look at the matter more generally. We should not pilot voting for 16-year-olds at the same time that we are piloting other public participation issues and assessing how they have worked. For that reason, I, too, ask Ross Finnie to press amendment 3.”

Labour and the Conservatives voted for this amendment which would have prevented 16 year olds voting in health board elections; the SNP, Liberal Democrats, Scottish Greens and Margo voted against.  When that amendment was defeated, a vote was taken on the Health Secretary’s own measure to extend the franchise to sixteen year olds and others, which Labour then had the audacity to vote for.  One minute against, the next for.

It is also worth recalling that this debate was held around the same time Ed Miliband MP, then Energy Secretary in the UK Labour Government spoke at the Scottish Labour conference, suggesting that 16 year olds could be allowed to vote in the 2011 Scottish elections.  This is what he had to say:

“It’s a two-way street with young people: you’ve got to give them a voice. It’s fine to demand responsibility from them, but you’ve got to show respect for them as well. I don’t think changing the voting age to 16 is a great panacea, but I do think it’s part of an attitude we need to pursue. I think it’s the right thing to do.”

The idea that everyone under the age of 18 should be excluded from a say in Scotland’s future is counter-intuitive.  Why should it be only adults whose views count in something so important?  As well as extending the franchise to 16 year olds, if I were the Scottish Government I would also allow for the Scottish Youth Parliament, youth fora and school councils also to be involved in the debate, holding mock referenda, ensuring that the voice and the views of children and young people all over Scotland are heard.  Their votes might not count towards the final result, but we should pay attention to what they say – as much as to what anyone else says in the debate, frankly.

Far from being an attempt to rig the result of the referendum, such a move would represent a natural extension of a longheld SNP principle and policy.  Indeed, it isn’t the SNP which is wobbly on this one, but Labour which is happy to vacillate on this issue at will, treating something as important as extending the franchise as an expedient tactic.   It speaks volumes for what they think of democracy and young people more generally.



18 thoughts on “Votes at 16 is a matter of principle not expediency

  1. Pingback: Our constitution, July 2012: independence and devolution | Edinburgh Eye

  2. Pingback: Vote! Should 16/17 year olds vote in independence referendum? « A Burdz Eye View

  3. If there were a referendum called today, then my parents who are nearly 90 would be expected to vote and they may well not see an independent Scotland. However, 16 – 18 have the rest of the lives to live under whatever regime is voted for. I think especially in the case of the referendum that they should be allowed a voice.

  4. I agree it has been SNP policy for yonks, more than 16 years certainly.

    Personally I don’t agree with it. The usual arguent is that 16 year olds can get married, join the army etc so why not vote. But I don’t think 16 year olds should be able to get married or join the army any more than they should be able to vote.

    I am an old fogey mind.

    • What about Duncan’s point – no tax without representation? Surely if you’re old enough for the Government to take taxes off you, you’re old enough to tell that government to shove it at the ballot box?

      I’ve known many a 16 year old in my time (I was one!) who is far more mature and eager to vote than many a 20, 30 or 40 year old.

  5. I did a recent blogpost that touched on this (cue plug: and I’ll just quote the bit that lays out why I think 16 year olds should be allowed to vote:

    “It has always seemed bizarre to me that a 16 year old can legally have sex, get married, start smoking (or is that 18 now?), and drive a motorbike, but cannot have their say on who should be running the country. This effectively says that voting requires far more responsibility than starting a family – yeah, sure it does.”

    As for Harris’ four criteria, they’re quite moronic.

    “1.That the question is a single, straightforward one that ellicits a “YES” or “NO” response (in other words, no third option to muddy the waters);”

    There goes any hope that Labour under Tom Harris will have any interest in advancing powers for Scotland beyond the puny Scotland Bill (despite what Aidan would have people believe on Better Nation)

    “2.That we are told now of the precice date that Salmond has planned for the referendum;”

    Nice spelling, future First minister. It’s well established that the referendum will be held in the second half of the term. Why on earth would they set out a date in the first of a five session parliament?

    “3.That the existing franchise is unchanged (without the vote being extended to those under the age of 18);”

    Clearly the words of a progressive politician. I fail to see how including 16 and 17 year olds can class it as “rigged”. Is this an early sign that if they ARE included and the result is in favour of independence, that the UK Government will claim foul play and ignore the wishes of Scotland?

    “4.That the Electoral Commission is given oversight of the referendum.”

    I find this the most insulting, implying as it is that the SNP will try and circumnavigate the proper channels for a referendum. This isn’t Zimbabwe, and Alex Salmond isn’t Robert Mugabe (no matter how much Labour politicians might protest otherwise). The referendum will be fit and proper, and Tom Harris needn’t think his “intervention” is the reason for that.

    If Tom Harris wants to see an example of a rigged referendum, he needn’t look any further than the 1979 devolution referendum. Which party rigged that one again? Oh…

    • I agree with you on the voting age, though I think the argument is simpler. 16 year olds are taxed. No taxation without representation.

      As far as point 2, Tom is dead right – this is a constitutional question. We need the date and the question that is to be asked established NOW so that ALL parties and groups can plan for and engage with the debate. And if it is to be a 3-question ref, we need the middle-way option debated and agreed in a cross-party, cross-society context well in advance of the vote so that people know what they are voting on.

      • I’m not discussing these objections/concerns in this blogpost – I’m challenging his view that to allow 16 year olds to vote would be part of a plan to rig the referendum. I’m explaining why it isn’t, why it is simply pursuit of longstanding SNP policy. Which as another commenter points out, is in fact also Labour policy.

        We can debate the date and question issue another time – when I or you have blogged on it in fact!

      • You’re right actually, that is very simple, and I completely agree with it. If you’re old enough to be taxed, you’re old enough to vote.

        As for needing the date set so everyone can engage in debate, I don’t agree with that at all. The SNP have stated it will be in the second half of the term. That means the latter half of 2014 at the very earliest. It’s not like it’s going to be a snap referendum, announced and held within a month, thus giving no one a chance to prepare. Are you seriously saying people can’t start to get engaged in debate now, whereas if the SNP named some arbitrary date in a few years time, people would suddenly leap into action? I don’t buy it. The knowledge that the referendum will happen is enough to get folk started. It’s already happening on blogs, it’s already been happening in the media, and if we’re honest, it won’t truly start in earnest until the referendum is actually on the horizon.

        As for the third option, again, there is absolutely nothing stopping one or some of the parties working out what they want from this now, if they even want to back it at all. Tom clearly doesn’t, in fact the only Labour politician I can think of that has spoken in favour of FFA is Eric Joyce, and he’s pretty far from the head of the party. The Tories won’t want it either (unless Murdo gets reallyradical) and obviously the Greens, SNP and socialists are all in favour of independence. That leaves the Lib Dems, who are the ones who are supposed to be in favour of it anyway. They’re also the ones with the advantage of being at the heart of the UK government, and can thus make a few enquiries as to how it would work (although saying that, they didn’t manage when they were coming up with their proposals for Scottish Water…)

        I actually think it would be really bizarre if the Scottish Government announced a date for the referendum now, when we have at least two full years of other legislative programmes to go through first. Any more than a year in advance would seem a bit strange, and certainly not in keeping with the history of referendums in this country, many of which have been held less than a year after the date was announced. There will have to be a referendum bill before the referendum can be held, and I expect the date would be announced as part of that. Seriously, where is the precedent for a referendum date being announced several years in advance, before anyone – including the government that will set the referendum – even knows for sure what that referendum will contain?

  6. I have no objection to votes at 16, but we have a process for achieving such constitutional change and it isn’t a unilateral declaration of policy to be applied to a single vote.

    Setting that aside, however, my main concern is how it is to be done. A highly motivates 16 year old can seek out, download, fill in and send off a registration form to be placed on the electoral register, but the Joint Valuation Boards who account for the vast majority of electoral registrations ask Scottish households only about those members who are 18, or will reach 18 within the coming year.

    The only way to do this fairly is to change that. So will the SNP do so?

    • Duncan, my post shows quite clearly this is not a unilateral declaration of policy – the SNP has already successfully applied that policy to elections, when it has had the chance to do so. Eventually, after humming and hawing, Labour voted for it. So okay for “kids” to vote for health boards but not for their constitutional future?

      You are wrong on the info gathered by VJBs, they actually gather info about 16 and 17 year olds and hold it until they become eligible to vote. Forms make that clear. Also read the debate at Stage 3 on the healthboards bill to see the work that was done then to resolve some of the issues of ensuring young people’s privacy while allowing them to vote. A compromise was reached that would exclude only a tiny number of pre 16s whose birthdays fell outside of the qualifying period. A solution was found before, one assumes it could be used to good effect for this purpose too.

      • VJBs gather info, in the annual electoral canvass, about those over 18 and those who will turn 18 during the lifetime of the current register, which is typically one year.

        They absolutely do not generally gather information about 16 year olds. Certainly not on any canvass forms I’ve ever seen in Lothian.

        An electoral system in which people are excluded on this basis is simply not fit to decide our constitutional future in my opinion. I’d be happy to see votes at 16, but only if they are done properly.

        As for health board elections, they constituted the most dangerous form of democracy – the under-publicised, under-explained form which creates sub-20% turnouts and allows utterly unrepresentative people to claim they were elected. Not a good model.

      • the principle of health board elections was sound, its operation was not. I think in many areas Labour managed to get most of its candidates elected funnily enough. The VJB gathers the info about people with a birthday after a certain date, well before their name gets published – read what the Health Secretary had to say about her discussions with EROs during the health board elections bill. They got to a point where near as damnit every 16 year old could be included in the electoral roll without impinging on under 16s privacy. What is in place will work and throwing up practical obstacles as an excuse not to extend a principle is pretty poor. Find the solution to the problem dont resile from extending the franchise.

      • The VJBs solicit information using the wording I set out – they ask about those over 18, and those reaching the age of 18 during the lifetime of the current register, which is typically one year. They thereby miss out on a large proportion of the 16 and 17 year olds.

        The solution, as far as I can tell, is simply to instruct the VJBs to solicit information about those over 16 and those reaching the age of 16 during the lifetime of the current register. VJBs are constituted and run by local government across Scotland, and therefore fall under the control of the Scottish Parliament.

        All I’m saying is that we should do it properly if we are going to do it.

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