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.