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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.