Give young people the right to decide their own futures, MPs urged amid Tory attack on democracy

With the Tory government attacking LGBT+ rights and civil liberties, the disenfranchisement of under-18s cannot be allowed to continue, campaigners say.

At age 16, Britons can leave home, marry, have sex, pay taxes and serve in the armed forces – but not vote.

People of all ages have, for decades, been campaigning for the voting age to be lowered. It’s been stuck at 18 since 1969, when it was lowered from 21. The government was recently presented with a prime opportunity for reform – its own Elections Act, which brings in changes regarding who can vote, and how they do so.

It includes a controversial voter ID requirement and gives the government oversight of the formerly independent Electoral Commission – something the body has warned is “inconsistent with the role that an independent Electoral Commission plays in a healthy democracy”.

The campaign group Fair Vote UK called it a “dark day for democracy”.

People come to vote in UK General Election

Amid conversion therapy and trans rights, young LGBT+ deserve the right to vote for the officeholders representing them. (Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

But ministers declined to address the issue of voting age – leaving young activists to take matters into their own hands.

Kira Lewis is a non-binary 22-year-old from Somerset and a trustee of the British Youth Council, which has campaigned for nearly two decades for greater youth participation in politics.

“Being able to vote when I was 16 would have been huge,” they told PinkNews. “To be able to play a part in changing society.

LGBT+ 16 and 17-year-olds, in particular, would greatly benefit from having the right to vote at a time when politicians are debating and making decisions about conversion therapy and gender recognition, the rights to protest and to asylum, and are all-but threatening to tear up the Equality Act.

“We have a generation where people are more open than ever before,” Lewis said.

“Yet we have huge decisions being made on our behalf by a parliament that doesn’t match the diversity we see in society.”

The British Youth Council has jumped-started its efforts to lobby politicians for a voting age of 16.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats support such a policy, while the general public remains split.

Lewis said that the Council has heard from “lots of its members” that queer youth should have a say over issues such as LGBT-inclusive education, banning conversion therapy, healthcare options for trans youth and mental health services.

“All of these things can transform a person’s life,” they added. “Their voices really do matter.

“I think it would have made an impact if young people always had a seat at the table. Young people wouldn’t be seen as a side project, but something always included in the conversation.

“We don’t say to 18 or 20-year-olds: ‘Why are you taking part, that’s so weird.’ But 50 years ago we did.”

Lewis, who has served in the UK Youth Parliament’s Procedures Group, and as a Member of the Youth Parliament, added: “If young people had always been allowed to take part in these processes, maybe they wouldn’t be so sidelined, underfunded and mismanaged.

“Instead, young people could actually hold them accountable.”

People hold up rosettes with 'votes at 16' on them

The British Young Council, a voting-age campaign charity, wants to lower the voting age in Britain. (Carlos Jasso)

Sceptics will no doubt raise questions over the decision-making skills of the nearly 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK, with critics saying young people are foolhardy, not mature enough and indifferent to politics.

Yet studies have shown that teens can make perfectly informed decisions by 16. They’re allowed to join the armed forces after all.

The coronavirus pandemic goes “hand in hand” with this, Lewis continued, as it provided the perfect moment to mobilise young people into politics. “People were sat inside wishing there was something they could do about this,” they said.

“Imagine if the response [from the government] was: ‘We recognise the massive impact the pandemic had on young people. We want to listen to you on what needs to be heard’?”

New voter ID laws will ‘target minorities’ like trans Britons

One measure contained in the Elections Act is making photo identification mandatory for all voters.

Accepted forms of identification include costly driver’s licences and passports as well as travel passes for older people. Young people’s discount railcards, however, are ineligible.

The measure will lock many people out from voting due to not having a so-called “valid” form of ID, Lewis warned.

The government’s own commissioned research has shown that unemployed people, those who have never voted, folks without qualifications and those with severely limiting disabilities are less likely to hold any form of ID.

Trans people whose documents do not match their gender identity, as well as low-income and ethnic minority people who are less likely to have a valid ID, will be among the disenfranchised.

“Trans people may not necessarily have an ID that looks like them,” Lewis explained, adding that the act “targets minorities”.

“Accessing ID for elections shouldn’t be something people have to pay. They should in no way face any barriers.

“Voting should be something people do and proudly be able to do without worry or stress.”

Emboldened by a landslide election victory in 2019, the Tories have taken aim at democratic processes. (TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

The British Youth Council believes that guaranteeing younger Britons the right to vote would electrify more civic engagement.

Only 3.2 per cent of British MPs are aged 30 or less compared to 36 cent of the population. Nine per cent of the 650 sitting MPs are openly LGBT+ and one-third of LGB Brits are aged between 16 and 24.

Jo Hobbs, the Council’s chief executive, said: “Politicians must give a new generation of change-makers the opportunities to participate so they can play an active role in resolving some of the biggest societal challenges we face.”

The Cabinet Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities claim that voters will “benefit” from Elections Act, which includes efforts to shield them from intimidation and support disabled folk at polling booths.

One other “protection” includes anti-fraud measures for absent voters to “eliminate election fraud”.

According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2018 there were 45,775,800 electoral registrations.

That same year, the Electoral Commission found no evidence of any large-scale electoral fraud.

Eight in 10 Brits are confident that elections are well run, according to the Commission’s tracker of public opinion.