Votes at 16: ffinlo Costain says that, for once, we should follow the Isle of Man

There’s one constitutional reform that would make Britain fairer and more representative, but currently lowering the voting age to 16 isn’t on the cards. For once, we should follow the Isle of Man’s lead.

The Isle of Man isn’t renowned for liberal government. Birching and anti-homosexual laws were abolished only relatively recently, and penal policy is still draconian. But in terms of voting reform the Isle of Man has always been a step ahead. In 1881 they were the first to introduce votes for women, and then in 2006 the Manx parliament, Tynwald, chose to reduce the voting age to 16.

The move was controversial. Critics argued that young people were too immature and too politically apathetic to be trusted with such an important, adult responsibility. Those in favour, however, pointed out that 16-year olds can legally work, pay taxes, get married, join the armed forces, and have sex, whether they’re straight or gay – so they shouldn’t have to wait until they’re 18 to vote.

Traditionally the main parties have been against this reform. However there’s suspicion that the reason we exclude so many taxpayers from the democratic process has nothing to do with apathy or understanding on the part of young people. Instead political parties worry that there’s only limited data available on 16 and 17-year-old voting intentions, and yet their unpredictable choices could decide the election.

On the Isle of Man the policy has proved highly successful. Many younger people immediately felt they had a greater stake in society. Gabriella Corlett, formerly a pupil at Queen Elizabeth II school in the Manx city of Peel, said, ‘It gave us the feeling we were being listened to. I was getting more of a say in the world I live in.’ Sarah Curwen added, ‘It changes the level of interest that young people have in how the country is run, as well as getting politicians interested in our views.’


Phil Gawne is the minister for infrastructure. He said: ‘I supported the change on the tax principle alone – those who pay tax should have a say in how that money is spent.’ John Shimmin, minister for environment, food and agriculture, felt that ‘all too often we hear in politics that young voices aren’t listened to. This forced all candidates to at least consider their views and needs.’

Although reform was welcomed, there was a feeling that the change on the Isle of Man was rushed in without proper administrative planning, which left potential new voters unaware of their rights, or the need to register to take them up. Mr Shimmin conceded, ‘There should have been a proper lead in time, at least two years, to give the opportunity to raise awareness.’

Isle of Man chief minister, Tony Brown, bats back the criticisms. ‘Many young people hadn’t filled in the voter registration forms because they were late going out, but even so many young people still voted – and that’s advancement.’

But there’s no doubt that due to the late change in the law the take up was less than hoped, especially because little real effort was made to engage 16 and 17-year-olds who’d left school. A spokesman for the Children’s Rights Alliance For England told me there must be a concerted effort to engage everyone if the voting age is lowered in this country. The Votes At 16 coalition includes trade unions such as UNISON, who will be crucial partners in raising awareness if the voting age is lowered in the future. We need to break down the barriers to voting, make registration easier, and run high profile public information campaigns.

If the Tory-Liberal government does choose to extend democratic choice to 16 and 17-year-olds it should learn from the Manx experience. Careful implementation of the policy must ensure information and opportunity is not just available to school pupils, but to all 16 and 17-year-olds, whatever walk of life they are in.

ffinlo Costain is director of Costain Communications

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