‘We have to move with the times’ - votes for 16 and 17 year olds backed in West Sussex

Members of the West Sussex Youth Cabinet celebrate county councillors backing votes for 16 and 17 year olds
Members of the West Sussex Youth Cabinet celebrate county councillors backing votes for 16 and 17 year olds

Opposition to 16 and 17-year-olds being given the vote has been compared to the resistance faced by women more than 100 years ago.

A lengthy discussion at County Hall in Chichester on Friday saw West Sussex councillors vote to support the idea and pledge to call on MPs and the government to do the same.

It was a close-run thing, though. Members were given free rein on how they voted, with 29 in favour, 24 against and two abstentions.

A Notice of Motion was written by the West Sussex Youth Cabinet as part of their Votes at 16 campaign and tabled by Dr James Walsh (Lib Dem, Littlehampton East).

Dr Walsh joked that because ‘we are all past our prime’, councillors should be planning for the next generations to succeed them.

Speaking about the women’s suffrage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he said: “There was a huge opposition to that at the time and, as with any changes to the voting system, or anything like that, there is always an entrenched conservative – with a small c – opposition, who think things tick along very well as they are.

“But we have to move with the times.”

The Notice of Motion pointed out that Scotland had lowered its voting age to 16 in 2015, while the Welsh Assembly is considering the change by 2021.

This was a point picked up by Michael Jones (Lab, Southgate & Gossops Green) who said: “How can any of us defend a situation where Welsh and Scottish 16 and 17-year-olds are deemed able to cast their vote but English counterparts aren’t?”

Speaking against the idea, Duncan Crow (Con, Tilgate & Furnace Green) suggested Scotland had only made the change ‘because polling had shown at the time that 16 and 17-year-olds were more likely to support Scottish independence’.

Pointing out the various legal protections in place for under 18s, he added: “If you believe in reducing the voting age, it is inconsistent not to believe in reducing the age of adulthood.

“These two things go together.”

Stating ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’, Mr Crow wondered how many young people would include ‘voting in the West Sussex elections’ on their list of things to look forward to when they turned 18.

Amanda Jupp (Con, Billingshurst) disagreed, saying she could understand some of the ‘frustration’ felt by young people, particularly given the ongoing Brexit saga.

Mrs Jupp added: “I would claim that some people over the age of 18 probably don’t have much knowledge of politics or wish to engage.

“I don’t think it’s an age thing. I think it’s how young people are encouraged to become involved.”

While supporting the idea, Mrs Jupp pointed out that, until the government brought about a change in the law, there was nothing the county council could actually do.

Speaking after the meeting, Ellie Roberts, chairman of the Youth Cabinet, said: ““It’s so important that our Votes at 16 Campaign has been heard and supported by councillors, it shows that the voice of youth matters in West Sussex.

“At 16 we can get married or enter a civil partnership, serve in the armed forces, pay tax and make other key decisions but currently we don’t get a say on who runs our councils and government. We think that’s wrong and it’s great that senior councillors think the same.”

The topic generated a huge amount of discussion on the Observer’s Facebook pages.

Comments included ‘they have little life experience at that age’ and ‘they vote with their emotions rather than their heads’.

But one reader said: “Yes because it’s their future and they have the benefit of learning current politics at school so are probably better informed than most.”

Another commented: “They have the life experience of a 16 or 17 year old. We sometime forget what it is to be young and what’s important to them. Maybe politicians would pay them more attention if they had the vote.”

Some felt that politicians have ignored young people’s rights and futures for too long, while others suggested 16-year-olds are more idealistic and ‘are more likely to be swayed by candidates who promise the world’.

Another reader wrote: “Like every other person their knowledge and maturity will vary.”

Members of West Sussex Youth Cabinet are aged 11-18 and are elected by their peers to represent the voice of all young people in the county. To find out more about the Youth Cabinet visit the county council’s website