Voter engagement and Votes at 16: progress!

Today, the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee is doing something I don’t recall any other Committee doing before it.  It is publishing a report in draft, and asking for public feedback before making final recommendations.

In announcing this initiative Graham Allen, the Committee’s Chair, writes, “we raise issues around re-building our political parties, their funding, conduct of MPs, how the Media can work to improve public involvement, and how we can restore a sense of excitement around our democracy”.  These are all clearly crucial issues for Liberal Democrats.

Despite being dominated by Labour and Conservative MPs, there are suggestions in the draft report of a fairly radical prospectus to increase participation.  They even took evidence and considered the thorny matter of electoral reform but – unsurprisingly – did not agree a recommendation in this area.  Specifically, they call on all parties to consider the following issues for inclusion in their 2015 manifestos:

  • The civic and legal duty of all citizens to register to vote
  • Registering to vote closer up to or on the day of an election
  • Online voting
  • Extended or weekend voting, or a public holiday for voting
  • Compulsory voting
  • All-postal voting
  • Extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds

On the last in that list, we made significant progress this week.  With Liberal Democrat and Crossbencher colleagues in the Lords, I had tabled amendments to the Wales Bill suggesting that the franchise ought to be extended for Welsh Assembly elections and for any referendum on tax-raising powers.  Working with Jenny Randerson, our Minister in the Wales Office, we secured a very positive response.

Of course, Liberal Democrats support Votes at 16 for all UK elections – if it were up to us we would extend the franchise comprehensively tomorrow.  The Conservative Party remains formally opposed.  Yet even they were unable to resist the remorseless logic of an extended franchise in a referendum in Wales, after the successful Scottish experience.

The UK Government has committed to bring forward amendments such that the Welsh Assembly can enable votes at 16 in a tax-raising referendum, if it wishes.  This will reflect the precedent in Scotland, where the Scottish Parliament set the referendum franchise.  There is strong cross-party (save for Conservative) support for Votes at 16 in the Assembly, so there is a very real prospect that they will use this power.  Jenny Randerson was instrumental and determined in securing this agreement, which Adrian Masters, the Political Editor of ITV Wales, hailed as “a significant symbolic step for Welsh devolution and for supporters of votes for 16 year olds”.  Praise indeed!

You can read the Select Committee’s full, draft report on voter engagement online here, and you have until 9th January 2014 to submit evidence via the online form.  Our Lib Dem Parliamentary Committee will certainly participate.  We will keep an eye on comments to see if we should reflect any LDV readers’ points in our own response.

In addition, I am hoping that the Select Committee will examine the cross-party draft Bill on party funding we published in May 2013.

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