The EU vote was a missed opportunity for votes at 16 across the UK

In June 2015, two very different things happened around the same issue in Scotland and England. On the 18th June 2015, during a Westminster debate on the EU Referendum Bill, MPs voted 310-265 against giving 16 and 17 year olds a say in the referendum. We think it was a huge missed opportunity that could have energised the EU referendum and inspired a new generation.Yet 40 minutes later up in the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, MSPs voted unanimously in favour of the Bill which promises votes at 16 for all Scottish elections. What is going on here?The Electoral Reform Society has long argued that the franchise should be extended to include 16 and 17 year olds. This is about engaging more people in our democracy – educated teenagers, thousands of whom are interested in politics and want a voice.So we were obviously delighted that Holyrood has – unlike Westminster – already given young people the opportunity to participate in all Scottish elections. But the UK’s refusal to do so for the European referendum is a massive wasted chance for democratic renewal  – and furthers the division between England and Scotland.Wales too is likely to get votes at 16 and 17, with the current Wales Bill set to devolve powers over the franchise to Cardiff Bay. The Bill received its second reading in Parliament in June 2016, and will proceed to the committee stage in July.

So we believed the UK government should have followed Scotland’s – and soon Wales’ – example, allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the EU referendum, and for future elections. Why?

One reason is, quite simply, the Scottish independence referendum showed when young people are given a say, they use it.

16 and 17 year olds threw themselves wholeheartedly into the Scottish referendum, with 75% voting and 97% saying they would vote in future elections. Even those opposed to extending the franchise for the referendum now agree that they participated with enthusiasm and made valuable contributions to the debate.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson MSP has said that her position changed to support an extension of the franchise after watching and debating in front of 16 and 17 year olds throughout the referendum – including stadiums and theatres packed full of school students eager to get involved. Moreover, research undertaken by Jan Eichhorn at the University of Edinburgh found that young people accessed more information from a wider variety of sources than any other age-group. And turnout was higher than among any youth age bracket.

So it was something of a generational injustice that many of the very same young people will get a vote in all Scottish elections, but didn’t get a vote on Britain’s membership of the EU. For ermine-robed Lords to be specifically allowed to vote but not the generation who helped bring such vitality to the Scottish Referendum was a bit of an insult to those young people, and democratic negligence at its worst.

Young Scots turned towards democracy and political action when they were given the chance. Up to that point young voters across the UK were turning their backs on formal party politics. While it wasn’t possible last week, the politicians who saw this should bear witness in Westminster and ensure 16 and 17 year olds are enfranchised not just in Scotland but across the country for future votes.

One thing is clear – Westminster shouldn’t let this become an issue which drives a wedge between the nations of the UK. 16 and 17 year olds deserve a vote in the EU referendum, not just in Scottish elections. And they can already vote in Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

In London, the youth were overt in expressing their frustration on their exclusion from the EU referendum vote, turning out in large numbers to protest as well as expressing their disappointment online, with the hashtag #notinmyname. One young Londoner, only 14, wrote a poignant letter to the London Evening Standard asking for the voting age to be lowered.

Ultimately, we need a three pronged approach to boosting youth engagement: extending the franchise, expanding voter registration, and educating young people about politics. All three go hand in hand, and would allay any worries of a lack of readiness to vote at 16. When given a voice in Scotland, young people educated themselves. A national programme of citizenship education would extend this even further.

Finally, we need a UK-wide franchise which is open, democratic and which sends a positive message to our young people that their opinions genuinely count – a genuinely ‘one nation’ franchise which engages our young people, instead of excluding them. While it’s a shame Westminster missed the opportunity for this kind of engagement in the EU referendum, last June’s ground-breaking Holyrood vote showed the way towards a fair franchise.

A version of this blog was first published here:


Josiah Mortimer

Josiah Mortimer

Josiah is Communications Officer for the Electoral Reform Society, joining in February 2015 after working for the Green European Foundation in Brussels. He graduated from the University of York in 2014, studying Politics, and writes regularly for a number of publications including the Huffington Post and Left Foot Forward, where he is a Contributing Editor. Previously he interned at the Global Labour Institute, the Yorkshire TUC, and the Cornish Guardian, and in his spare time is a singer-songwriter and a Senior Correspondent for the website Bright Green.
Josiah Mortimer


Editor @leftfootfwd. Also tea addict, adoptive Cornishman, musician. Bylines @thetimes, @newstatesman etc. Pitch:
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Josiah Mortimer
Josiah Mortimer

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