Initially, I was dismissive. When it was announced that 16- and 17-year-olds would have a vote in the Scottish referendum of 2014 I joined the chorus of moans.
How would they bring anything to the debate? If they look up from their Instagram and Snapchat conversations for a moment, they’ll be lost and fearful and confused and so would back anybody or anything that will talk about Ed Sheeran and give them a voucher for H&M.
Clearly this was not the case. Talking to new young voters ahead of that poll, I found them to be as informed as many older voters and also to have really forensically debated the pros and cons before they came to their own reasoned decisions.
The young voters were informed, forensically debating the pros and cons before they came to their own decisions
Still, opposition remains entrenched. And many of the previously rehearsed arguments rose again in the debate about lowering the voting age in Westminster last week.
Younger voters, said a venerable member, would find the topics too complicated. Online, the now-standard ‘this only benefits the left’ argument grew.
There are a couple of parts to that. If there is a belief that younger voters have a natural inclination one way, how about engaging with them rather than sneeringly dismissing them? Making a reasoned pitch and then see how the cards fall. There is an associated wider issue here that we must not shy away from. It’s vital that everybody, not just 16- and 17-year-old potential voters, are introduced to opposing points of view and learn how to engage with them rather than closing the door and refusing.
Much of the belief on the politics of younger people is received. However, it has been shored up recently. It’s clear that a younger electorate (though not under 18) helped swell the Labour vote in May’s general election. In reality, part of the reason is that Labour spent a lot of money on Snapchat to engage with young voters.
They realised that they had to go to them where they are, rather than expect things to happen the other way round. It was common sense, it paid off. You didn’t need a political science degree to work that out. Still, the Tories didn’t think to do it.
Also, in truth, the numbers involved may not swing any poll one way or another.
In the Scottish referendum, it’s estimated that 100,000 16- and 17-year-olds voted. Of them, 71 per cent voted Yes and 29 per cent voted No. Still, the outcome wasn’t changed.
But a host of bright, new young voters were engaged and are now part of the democratic debate. Hopefully, they’ll remain within it.
And by engaging early and having a hardwired intention to debate the issues and learn how to make your point, it builds a positive electorate for the future.
There is no argument strong enough to keep them without an electoral mandate any more.