Love him or hate him, it cannot be denied that Jeremy Corbyn has galvanised many young voters and engaged them in British politics. This increased youth engagement in politics manifested itself in 2017, where young people voted in the highest numbers for generation and even in 2019, when he generated vocal support on social media from younger voters. Moreover,  the right of franchise was extended to 16 and 17 year olds for elections into the Senedd and Holyrood has increased pressure on Parliament to lower the voting age to 16 for general elections. Many political commentators have suggested that extending franchise to all 16 and 17 year olds for all future general and local elections would ameliorate the supposed ‘democratic deficit’ problem facing pluralist, liberal British democracy. That said, despite these calls to lower the voting age to generate increased political engagement and education from the younger demographic, there is limited appetite and need for this reform and this reform fails to fundamentally resolve the apathy from younger voters towards conventional political processes within British politics.


Overall, whilst enfranchising 16 and 17 year olds with the opportunity to vote earlier would help promote active citizenship by increasing the youth’s understanding and engagement with political issues, there is limited evidence to suggest it would have the desired effect of substantially increasing youth turnout and it could potentially have a corrosive long-term effect on turnout. It is true that reducing the voting age for general elections and referendums would encourage some greater engagement with the political process amongst some portions of the younger demographic. This view is exemplified by the 2014 Scottish referendum, in which 16 & 17 year olds were granted the vote for the first time in British history; 75% of 16-17 year olds voted and many teenagers sought out political information to help make informed decisions, with the success of giving 16 and 17 year olds an input into the constitutional failure of Scotland encouraging the Scottish Parliament to legislate to give 16 and 17 year olds the vote in Scottish local and parliamentary elections. This would suggest that extending suffrage to 16 and 17 year olds would strengthen British representative democracy, as by expanding input, some younger citizens would feel like they have more of a stake in society and engage more in the political process, fostering long-term civic mindedness amongst the youth. However, this argument fails to appreciate that referendums generate higher levels of participation than general and local elections; within Scotland alone, the turnout for the 2016 Scottish Parliament election conducted under AMS, where 16 and 17 year olds were allowed to vote was a much smaller 55.8%. Moreover, whilst the most recent 2016 EU referendum attracted a 72% turnout, higher than any general election turnout since 2001, when Tony Blair seemed assured of a large majority against an uninspiring Conservative opposition and thus turnout dipped to a post-war low of 59%. This tends to suggests that the success of enfranchising 16-17 year olds for referendums (an element of direct democracy) in terms of increased youth turnout and engagement wouldn’t translate to British representative democracy and FPTP elections, and that such reforms would have a muted effect on civic engagement for general elections. It must also be recognised that the 75% of 16-17 year olds who voted in the Scottish independence referendum was still below the national average of 84% turnout, which tends to suggest that lowering the voting age in the UK to 16 wouldn’t substantially increase youth turnout and that more reforms would be needed to combat the trend of youth apathy and abstention from democratic channels within British politics. This all tends to suggests that as younger citizens are less likely to vote than other voters, expanding the vote to 16 and 17 year olds would not solve, but potentially exacerbate the problem of poor youth turnout and potentially create a generation of ‘abstainers’, especially when you consider that voters who do not vote in their first eligible election are statistically proven to be traditionally the most unreliable voters. 


Furthermore, whilst it is to be recognised that the needs, concerns and interests of 16 and 17 year olds traditionally have been somewhat marginalised within British politics, ultimately it will conclude that as many 16 and 17 year olds aren't rational and aware enough of political issues and the political climate, and moreover lack the life experience to make considered judgements. It is true that the dearth of political representation for younger voters means their views and interests are traditionally somewhat disregarded. Despite the fact that winter fuel allowance costs the same as tuition fees, the former policy, which catered to the needs of older voters was implemented, whereas under the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, Clegg abandoned his flagship policy and whipped all MPs to vote for a tripling in tuition fees. This suggests that youth interests are ignored under the status quo and that lowering the voter age would encourage political parties to cater more for youth interests and give greater attention to youth issues such as education, drugs and other issues of social and economic policy that affect them. Whilst this appears to substantiate the thesis that youth interests aren’t given under the status quo and that more needs to be done to involve the youth in the political process, a more convincing interpretation is that expanding the voting age to include 16 and 17 year olds would be counter-intuitive. This is because they lack direct life experience on the social and economic issues which dictate election campaigns and don’t have enough political understanding to make reasoned voting choices. Moreover, as 16 and 17 year olds have few adult life experiences on which to base their voting decisions, they are more impressionable and likely to either be taken in by radical and potentially impractical policies offered by parties, or be manipulated into voting a certain manner by their parents or social media peer pressure. Whilst a strong core vote amongst older voters elevated the Conservatives to a majority of 80 in 2019, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn were so synonymous with the youth vote and there was such vocal social media support for Jeremy Corbyn’s economic radicalism amongst younger voters - within Twitter and Instagram, there were memes circulating amongst younger voters that if they did not vote Corbyn, they were to be unfollowed - this suggests that impressionable 16 and 17 year olds would feel pressured by social media peer pressure into voting for more radical candidates and potentially making unwise voting decisions. Thus, it is to be postulated that sticking with the status quo of waiting until voters have reached 18 and are considered to have enough ‘maturity’ life experience and political understanding to make reasoned voting decisions would be better at serving their interests in the long-run, but that to strengthen youth investment in British representative democracy, politicians need to make more of a concerted effort to account for this younger demographic when formulating policy and voting on legislation.


Although proponents of lowering the voting age to 16 for public elections have argued that this reform would help cure the democratic deficit within British representative democracy and drastically increase youth engagement with conventional British political processes, this argument is ultimately unconvincing. It is unconvincing as it fails to appreciate that there is relatively little democratic need for this measure, as the right to suffrage for 16 and 17 year olds is merely deferred, rather than outright denied, and the lack of appetite amongst 16-17 young voters themselves for this measure illustrates the lack of urgency and relative futility of this proposed reform. Similarly, it fails to acknowledge that the consistently low levels of turnout in general elections amongst the 18-24 younger demographic who are already enfranchised suggests that this reform would do little to resolve the fundamental problem with British representative democracy in its current state in terms of galvanising the youth to vote and engage with the political process. Indeed, stimulating greater confidence and engagement amongst younger voters - which the measure of lowering the voting age to 16 attempts to achieve - could instead be achieved if politicians were made more accountable to younger voters and if politicians were better at incorporating the interests of the youth into policy decisions. Moreover, the other problem which this proposed reform attempts to tackle - that of the supposed democratic deficit and a lack of legitimacy amongst elected officials due to poor turnout levels in general and local elections - could be more effectively resolved through implementing compulsory voting. This would more effectively resolve the problem of elected officials not having enough legitimacy to enact transformative legislation due to poor turnout compared to lowering the voting age for general elections to 16, as it would ensure high turnouts for all public elections. Indeed, Australia has had compulsory elections since 1924 and in the 2016 federal elections, 91% of those eligible voted, whereas under the status quo within British representative democracy, turnout has been as low as 59.6% in 2001, meaning 74% of registered voters did not bestow a mandate on the government that launched the invasion of Iraq. Thus, the most effective means of resolving the current democratic deficit within British representative democracy would not be lowering the voting age to 16, but encouraging youth engagement in the political process through elected officials making more of a concerted effort to account for their interests in policy, and ultimately implementing compulsory voting to create that high turnout that gives governments legitimacy.