The team at Backbench recently shared an article on Twitter from the Huffington Post. It's a publication that I enjoy reading, as I think they do bring good balance to a debate, especially the excellent and forthright writing and views of Mehdi Hasan. Now I'm not suggesting that I’ve crossed the house, or go gooey around the ears, so I'll try not to scare my readership away.
Credit where it is due and all bad jokes aside, this article raises an important issue with the upcoming EU referendum; votes for 16 and 17 year olds in the referendum. The article itself is suggesting that the Labour Party may be positioning itself to campaign for the motion. Hardly a ringing endorsement for 16 and 17 year olds that an opposition that failed, during the election, to even discuss Europe, is now campaigning for younger voters to have their say.
In my wildest works of fiction, I could not have dreamt Labour would even be considering this. The leading voice of this notion who is quoted in the article is the Shadow Foreign Secretary and Labour MP for Leeds Central, Hilary Benn. He starts by laying out his agenda saying how the independence referendum in Scotland "has given us a glimpse of what enfranchising 16/17 year olds can mean.”
He then wrote "Over 80% of them registered to vote in the referendum last year. They participated and brought energy and vitality to the debate,” adding in summary "45 years ago the United Kingdom legislated to extend the franchise to 18 year olds."
What is fascinating about these remarks is he seems to have misunderstood something about the Scottish referendum; they were never offered independence in the first place. Why? Because Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP were advocating for an amicable divorce from the UK, to head first into a new marriage with our good neighbours in Brussels and Strasbourg as members of the European Union. I do wonder, if the Scots had been offered true independence in the first place, would we have this noisy rabble in Westminster?
As if Mr Benns' remarks and insight were not incredulous enough the Huffington Post then quoted a couple of people they interviewed from the age group. Ciara Brodie, a 16-year-old from Liverpool, says she would "love" to be able to vote in the referendum;
"I just think too often politicians play political football with young people," she muses. "We seem to be the easy ones to ignore or play around with- for example the education reforms, tuition fees, educational maintenance allowance.
"It's just turning us off politics, and making us increasingly frustrated with the system."
Daniel Wittenberg, a 17-year-old living in London, says the opposing arguments are simply flawed;
"People my age are simply not too stupid, impressionable or disinterest to come up with a legitimate Yes or No answer," he tells HuffPost UK. "In fact, our future engagement with politics relies on politicians listening to us and representing us now - and that means enfranchising us."
Now these fine young people managed to get me thinking, can I actually make the case for them getting the vote? I certainly do not think they are stupid, or political footballs. It aroused my curiosity as to what a 16/17 year old can legally do in this country and here are some of the things I discovered. They are able to drive a moped, consent to sexual activity with others aged 16 or above, apply for a passport, get a national insurance number, get married or register a civil partnership with consent and finally join the armed forces with parental consent.
I read that list today and I must admit I was nearly convinced to change my mind, but I didn't because I asked myself one defining question. Would you vote to allow a 16 year old to sit on a jury?
Now I felt just as strongly about my answer to this question as I did about the EU referendum. It is a resounding no. These kids can not own homes, and in my very strong view as intelligent as they maybe, do not have the life experience to sit on a jury. So therefore if they cannot impact my future in the dock, there is no way they can be put into a position to impact my future in the ballot box?
Some of the quotes used in the article highlight my point, I almost sense they think the state owes them something. Before they have earned the right to have it. We have put sensible and profound restrictions on what a 16/17 year old rightly can and can't do. We simply can not chance this, the referendum is too important.