Policy Papers


‘The last milestone’ on the journey to full adult suffrage? 50 years of debates about the voting age

Adrian Bingham |

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Executive Summary

  • Fifty years ago, Britain become the first major democratic nation to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 when Harold Wilson’s Labour Government passed the Representation of the People Act 1969.
  • This anniversary has barely registered in the national imagination, which reflects the muted reception of the reform at the time.
  • Current debates about the Votes at 16 campaign are impoverished by our poor understanding of this history.  The debates in the 1960s highlight how difficult it is to reach agreement about the democratic capacity of younger voter, because there is no meaningful way of establishing an individual’s fitness to vote.
  • The evidence from 1969 also suggests that unless new voters are welcomed, properly integrated into party structures, and encouraged to believe they have a stake in their democracy, lowering the vote age will have a limited impact on British democracy.
  • Neither the Wilson administration, nor the subsequent Conservative government under Edward Heath, wholeheartedly embraced the influx of three million young voters; indeed, a considerable amount of Home Office time was expended in trying to limit the impact of concentrations of student electors in urban constituencies.
  • Political parties were slow to find ways to listen to, or encourage the meaningful participation of, young voters, which, unsurprisingly, led to lower levels of turnout than older cohorts.
  • The voting age should be part of a wider national conversation about democratic renewal, in which the rights and responsibilities of all citizens, and the operation of our various political institutions, are fully considered.

Introduction

The momentum behind Votes at 16 has steadily gathered pace in the UK over recent years. 16-year-olds participated for the first time in a significant political vote in the referendum on Scottish Independence in 2014, and seemed to have turned out in higher numbers than slightly older cohorts. With their inclusion into the political realm deemed a success, the Scottish Elections (Reduction of Voting Age) Act 2015 made 16-year-olds eligible to vote in elections for the devolved parliament and local government. Wales looks likely to be following suit. In July 2018 the First Minister for Wales, Carwyn Jones AM, announced his intention to reduce the voting age, and in October the Welsh National Assembly supported the introduction of the relevant legislation. At Westminster, the Labour Party, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party are in all in favour of Votes at 16, and while the government has made clear that it has no plans to legislate on this issue, many leading figures in the Conservative Party, including Justine Greening, Ruth Davidson and the members of the Tory Reform Group, have declared their support. This is an issue that is not going to disappear: it will either generate an attempt at reform at Westminster, or it will be another thread which Scotland and Wales will tug to continue unravelling the increasingly frayed political fabric of the United Kingdom.

The discussions about Votes at 16 feeds into a wider set of often anxious debates about age and political participation. Since the 1997 General Election, there have been growing concerns about the relative political disengagement of younger cohorts, and by 2015, turnout levels among 18-24 year-olds had dropped to 43%. This decline seems to have been halted in 2017, even if high-profile claims of a ‘youthquake’ in that year’s General Election were exaggerated. In recent years, though, age has become the key demographic dividing line in British politics. In 2016, young people were far more likely than their elders to vote Remain in the referendum on membership of the European Union, while in 2017 they disproportionately rallied to the Labour Party – an alliance symbolised by images of the Glastonbury crowd singing Jeremy Corbyn’s name. Age seems to have overtaken class and gender as the key social divide in British politics.

One striking feature of these discussions is the lack of historical perspective – even though the word ‘youthquake’, Oxford University Press’s word of 2017, was coined in 1965 – and, in particular, the limited awareness of the history of voting age reform. The recent Briefing Paper on the Voting Age, written by Neil Johnston and Noel Dempsey of the House of Commons Library, refers to 1960s debates about lowering the voting age to only to establish that ‘historically the Conservative Party has generally opposed reducing the voting age.’ Gaps in public knowledge are partly to be explained by the lack of scholarly work on the 1969 Representation of the People Act. There has not yet been a single detailed study of the passage of this legislation, and it is referred to only briefly in most histories of the period. This is largely because lowering the voting age to 18 is seen as an inevitable and uncontroversial outcome of changing societal attitudes to young people. And clearly, at a macro level, this was part of a much wider process of reform in Western liberal democracies, most of which followed suit in the 1970s. But Britain was the first major democratic nation to lower the voting age to 18, and the passage of this legislation was by no means straightforward: Parliament was divided about it, as was public opinion, and there was considerable scepticism and anxiety within the Labour government that passed it. Examining what happened before and after the 1969 Act helps us both to understand the dynamics of voting age debates – the hopes and fears on either side, the difficulties of resolving the discussions – and also to explain why the legislation did not generate the levels of political participation among young people that reformers had anticipated.

The rise of youth?

Before the 1950s, ‘youth’ had little salience as category of political debate or analysis in Britain. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 temporarily gave servicemen aged 19 and 20 the vote, and an age qualification of 30 was used to limit the size of the new female electorate. In the late 1920s, moves to equalise the franchise at 21 led to debates about the political maturity of so-called ‘flapper voters’, and some suggestions that equalisation should happen at the age of 25. Overall, though, discussions of voting patterns remained dominated by class, gender and region. During and immediately after the Second World War, motions to lower the voting age to 18 were decisively rejected without full parliamentary debate, and only the Communist party showed any sustained interest in the issue. After 1945, the parties, particularly the Conservatives, did step up their efforts to mobilise young people. The Young Conservatives were particularly successful in recruiting among the young middle class, with over 160,000 members at their high point in 1949, and some 93,000 in 1957. As was widely accepted at the time though, the success of the Young Conservatives and the Conservative University Associations were based largely around their social appeal and impressive events programme rather than their political content (hence their reputation as a ‘middle-class marriage bureau’). Labour’s League of Youth was more ‘political’ in its activities, but also much smaller. 

With the emergence of a more affluent and better-educated society from the mid-1950s however, there was a widespread sense that the younger generation was very different from their elders. The media and public life were full of discussions about the habits of these ‘babyboomers’, often heralding a ‘teenage revolution’ or ‘Youthquake’. By the late 1950s all the major parties tried to harness, with varying degrees of success, the energies of young people. The increasing use, and greater sophistication, of opinion polling led to efforts to measure the attitudes of young people, and political scientists and sociologists started tracking voting intentions and political positions in some detail. In both the Labour and Liberal parties there were calls to bring young people into the political system. In April 1959, Labour appointed a Youth Commission, chaired by the barrister Gerald Gardiner, to examine the changing political and social landscape. Its report, The Younger Generation, largely written by Peter Shore from the Labour Research Department and published in September 1959, expounded in idealistic terms about the potential of young people to reinvigorate democracy, and recommended lowering the voting age to 18:

Having imposed so many obligations [such as taxation and military service] and having accorded young people so many rights at the age of 18, it makes no sense for the state to withhold from them the essential democratic right of voting until three years later… When young people are enfranchised a new voting force will enter politics and the needs of youth will receive far more attention than they have so far. Moreover, democracy in this country urgently needs the vigour and impatience of youth… we believe that lowering the voting ago to 18 will give young people a sense of greater responsibility and participation in society.

The report was received sympathetically by the party’s National Executive Committee, and Hugh Gaitskell, the party leader, pledged that a Labour Government would initiate consultations about votes at 18. This announcement was quickly overtaken by the announcement of a general election, which saw Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister, lead the Conservative party to a third consecutive victory, and any momentum behind the issue was lost. By the time of the 1964 General Election, however, the voting age was firmly back on the political agenda. The Liberal Party developed a ‘Charter for Youth’ and became the first major party to support votes at 18, while the Labour Party, more cautiously, retained the pledge to consult on the matter. When Labour, now under the leadership of Harold Wilson, secured a narrow election victory, there was, for the first time, a serious prospect of constitutional reform.

Parliament, and party, divided

The issue of rights for young people, then as now, went beyond the voting age, and encompassed questions about when young people should be able to take on a range of adult responsibilities. Accordingly, Wilson’s government established two separate inquiries. The voting age was considered, in traditional fashion, by a Speaker’s Conference, a committee of MPs chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons. This was established in May 1965, but was delayed first by the death of the Speaker (Sir Harry Hylton-Foster) the following September, and then by the dissolution and reconstitution of the conference due to the 1966 general election, which saw Labour re-elected with a bigger majority. A second committee was formed in July 1965, under the chairmanship of Justice Latey, to examine the ‘age of majority’ in civil law, that is the age at which people could enter into legal contracts, hold and dispose of property, and marry without parental consent.

The Latey Committee reported in July 1967, and recommended consolidating the range of different age-related legal qualifications into a simple age of majority at 18. The committee offered a powerful testimony to the ways in which social change had empowered young people and given them a wider and richer range of experience:

Young people today, as the old never tire of remarking, are not what they were. They are largely literate and educated; they are far better off financially and far more independent of their parents; they are taught to think and enquire for themselves and mostly do so; and their experience of life is wider. The question is not whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but what are we to do about it. This Committee is convinced that we must ensure that the young go out into the world as fully prepared for their adult responsibilities as possible, and that in giving them adult status at 18 we are doing no more than recognising the simple facts.

The Committee was very careful not to express a view on the voting age, which lay outside its terms of reference; while the report argued that there was no need for it to align with the age of majority, many inside and outside parliament believed that it would be difficult to justify having divergent age qualifications.

The Speaker’s conference, on the other hand, was far more reluctant to embrace reform, and even though it had access to the findings of the Latey Report before it reported, it recommended reducing the age only to 20. Its report did not explain its rationale, but the voting figures showed that the age of 20 had been agreed by 24 votes to 1, and a separate proposal for votes at 18 was rejected by 22 votes to 3. It was subsequently suggested in the House of Commons that Conservative members of the committee blocked change for party political reasons, and that the agreement on the age of 20 was only reached when advocates of a lower age recognised they would not be able to secure agreement.

These debates raised a number of issues that continue to bedevil discussions about the voting age today. First, there was no agreed or independent way of defining and measuring a standard of political or legal maturity, let alone of discovering whether or not a whole cohort of young people met this standard. Those offering opinions on the topic produced a range of wild generalisations, optimistic or pessimistic according to the individual’s viewpoint, without pointing the way to a clear resolution. It is revealing that neither the Latey Committee nor the Speaker’s conference reached a consensus: two members of the Latey Committee wrote a minority report dissenting from the decision to lower the age of majority, while the Speaker’s conference exposed splits that partly followed party lines.

Second, there was no consensus on the underlying concept of ‘generation’. Some argued that, even if young people were healthier, wealthier, and better educated than in the past, they were well integrated into society, broadly accepted social norms and their political attitudes did not significantly diverge from their elders; that class, gender, ethnic or regional identities were stronger than age-related ones; and that what differences did relate to youth would melt away as individuals matured. Others, by contrast, argued that these young people formed a distinctive generation, which would significantly alter the political landscape in either positive or negative ways. In the face of this generational challenge, politics needed to reform its practices. Such differences were not necessarily explicitly stated, but even when there were, it was difficult to find decisive evidence either way. Historians and social scientists continue to argue, after all, about the reality and distinctiveness of the ‘babyboomer’ generation.

These disagreements and confusions also characterised public opinion more broadly. When the Cabinet discussed the lowering of the voting age in May 1968, they were presented with the findings of three surveys on the subject. The first, from 1963, showed over 60% of the public against changing the voting age. A smaller survey of 18 to 20 year olds in August 1967 showed a majority in favour of change, but even amongst that age group, 30% rejected the reform. The most recent and significant poll was taken in March 1968 after the Speaker’s Conference had reported. When offered the option of a voting age at 21, 20 or 18, 56% wanted the status quo; only a quarter backed a change to 18, and another 17% accepted the proposal of the Speaker’s conference. The lack of a public desire for change was one of the central arguments used by opponents of reforms both to the age of majority and voting age.

A reluctant reform?

Unsurprisingly Wilson’s Cabinet was divided too, with differences of opinion compounded by the difficulty of the political backdrop. In May 1968, the prospect of 18-year-old voters disturbing Britain’s democratic equilibrium suddenly seemed very real. That year marked the high point of counter-cultural radicalism in the Western world, with serious upheavals in France, Italy, the United States and elsewhere, and in Britain, anti-Vietnam War marches in London and student sit-ins at a number of universities. The Wilson government was also under severe pressure due to its devaluation of the pound in November 1967, which led to levels of unpopularity in opinion polls not seen for any post-war government. This political turmoil clearly shaped Cabinet discussions, and reinforced anxieties about how the prospective new voters might respond.

Although there was a recognition that younger voters were usually more likely to vote Labour than Conservative, the Cabinet, aware of the public dissatisfaction with the government and the wider currents of radicalism, were not confident that Labour would receive an electoral boost. According to Cabinet member Richard Crossman’s diary record of the discussions, Richard Marsh, the Minister of Transport, thought it ‘a zany thing to give young people the vote’, Ray Gunter, the Minister of Power feared that schoolchildren ‘would be unduly influenced by their teachers’, and others suggested that the Welsh and Scottish Nationalists might exploit young voters. On the other side, Tony Benn, the Minister of Technology, threatened to resign ‘unless the 18 year-olds got justice’. The summary of the debate in the Cabinet papers suggests that the desire to bring potentially radical young people within the political system – very reminiscent of rationalisations of franchise reform in the nineteenth century – was an important element in the eventual decision:

It is arguable that to give young people of 18 the vote will channel their political energies into regular forms of political activity and away from the kind of violent demonstration in which students have recently been indulging (or at least that the more stable among them will be less tempted to violent and dramatic forms of demonstration if attempts to exercise political influence by orthodox means are not frustrated by the lack of a vote). These arguments, however, have to be weighed against the consideration that the existence of a pool of some three million young voters with more enthusiasm than experience may be exploited by minority parties such as the Nationalists and by freak candidates airing a particular grievance or protest.

The government eventually over-ruled the Speaker’s conference and proposed votes at 18, although it had to impose a three-line whip on ministers and a two-line whip on backbenchers, rather than allowing a free vote, because it was apprehensive about passage of the legislation. The divisions and disagreements had a significant impact on the presentation and profile of the legislation, with lasting consequences. Sir Burke Trend, the Cabinet Secretary, noted that the government was pushing through reform relatively quietly as a technical measure, and wondered whether there was potential for it to be presented as ‘the last milestone on the long and historic journey to full adult suffrage… something for which a Government could rightly claim considerable political credit’. His advice was not heeded, however, and such a confident celebration of these new political rights, highlighting Britain as a pioneer among democracies, was not forthcoming. The measure received Royal Assent with relatively little fanfare on 17 April 1969, and 18-year-olds voted for the first time in the General Election of June 1970, won unexpectedly by Edward Heath’s Conservatives. Under-35s were 10% more likely to vote Labour, even though the Conservatives had an advantage of more than 3% among the public as a whole; their turnout levels were significantly lower, however, at 74%, compared with 87% for the over-55s. The Conservatives then, as they are now, were alarmed by this evidence: an internal memo from the party’s Research Department argued in 1976 that if the party continued to ignore young voters, it might never again be able to form a majority government.

Although lip-service was paid to the new voters, none of the main parties did much to alter their thinking about younger citizens, and they struggled to engage them in meaningful ways in their structures. Indeed, it is evident from the Cabinet papers that both the Wilson and Heath governments were anxious about the political impact of concentrations of university students in certain areas, and both investigated the possibility of limiting the rights of undergraduate students to vote in their term-time, rather than home, constituencies. Despite some internal voices demanding reform, political parties did not display an attractive face to young people: they looked and sounded middle-aged, if not old, and rarely made consistent efforts to reach out beyond the politicised minority. The problems of finding the right language was exacerbated by the failure to find convincing ways of negotiating an increasingly powerful youth culture that remained distant from, and was often contemptuous of, party politics. The 1969 reform was a missed opportunity for democratic renewal, and it is unsurprising that the turnout of young voters remained below that of older cohorts.

Conclusion

The dynamics of contemporary debates about Votes at 16 are similar, in many respects, to those of the 1960s. Despite energetic advocacy from reform groups and many of the leading political parties, a political consensus in Parliament remains some way off, and opinion polls suggest that the public remains divided. Franchise reform struggles to stay at the top of the political agenda amidst other pressing issues, while surveys indicate that younger people themselves often feel that political parties remain distant and often resistant to their particular concerns. The example of the 1960s suggests that it will be hard to reach a consensus about the political capacity of 16 and 17-year-olds, or about the rights of different generations, if this issue is taken on its own; and if a decision is taken to grant Votes at 16 in the absence of any more far-reaching changes to Britain’s democratic system, it is unlikely to inspire greater political engagement among young people. The political deadlock over Brexit has led to calls for citizen assemblies, parliamentary reform, and a written constitution. It would be far more constructive to consider votes for 16 as part of a wider conversation about democratic renewal, in which the rights and responsibilities of all citizens, and the operation of our various political institutions, are fully considered. In such a context, it will be easier to remove the question from the pressures of short-term political considerations, and hear from young people about how they could, and should, participate meaningfully in British politics. That would be the way of generating reforms worth remembering in fifty years’ time.


Further Reading


Steven Fielding, The Labour Governments 1964-70, Vol.1: Labour and Cultural Change (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).

Neil Johnston and Noel Dempsey, ‘Voting Age’, House of Commons Library Briefing Paper, No. 1747, 12 October 2018.

David Marsh, Young People and Politics in the UK: Apathy or Alienation (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

Andy Mycock and Jonathan Tonge, eds, Beyond the Youth Commission: Young People and Politics (London, Political Studies Association: 2014)

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