The parliament’s upper house backed on Wednesday (18 November) lowering the voting age to 16 in a planned referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, a move that could delay the timing of the crucial vote.
Britons can usually vote from the age of 18, but 16- and 17-year-olds were allowed to vote in last year’s Scottish independence referendum, prompting calls for a similar lowering of the threshold for the EU referendum that Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to hold by the end of 2017.
“Young people are the future of this nation, this is their one chance to have a say in this country’s relationship with the European Union,” said Labour peer Eluned Morgan, one of those who proposed the change.
“It is an exceptional case, they will have to live with the consequences of this result for longer than anyone. Let’s show them that we have the confidence in them, that we respect them and their opinions and let’s give them a vote.”
Cameron opposes reducing the voting age and MPs in the House of Commons, the more powerful lower chamber, rejected an earlier bid by the opposition Labour Party and Scottish nationalists to give 16- and 17-year olds the vote.
But the decision by the House of Lords – where Cameron’s ruling Conservatives do not have a majority – to support lowering the voting age by 293 votes to 211 means the issue will have to be re-considered.
Both the upper and lower house must agree on the final wording of the legislation, so even if the Commons overturns the peers’ decision, the upper chamber could again block it, risking a period described as ‘ping pong’, where the bill goes back and forth until an agreement is finally reached.
Younger voters are considered more pro-European so including them in the referendum could potentially boost Britain’s chances of staying in the bloc.
However, some argue that lowering the voting age will help the ‘out’ campaign because it will take time to register the extra voters and so possibly delay the date of the referendum.
They believe the negative headlines generated in the interim by the EU’s various crises – over refugees and the euro as well as security concerns prompted by the Paris attacks – will prompt more voters to favour leaving the bloc Britain joined in 1973.
Cameron, whose Conservative Party has long been deeply divided over Europe, favours staying in a reformed EU but must first persuade the other 27 member states to accept a list of demands aimed at reshaping Britain’s relationship with the bloc.