Votes at 16: Labour flunks it – again

As soon as it was known that 16 and 17 year old would have a say in the referendum on Scottish independence, I tabled a Bill in the Lords for a comprehensive change in the franchise. I have long believed that there is a strong case for lowering the voting age, in light of the maturity and political awareness of this group, and the many, much rehearsed adult responsibilities they take on. There is a pragmatic argument too, which is simply that creating a seamless link for as many young people as possible between citizenship education in schools, electoral registration in the classroom, and then actual participation at the ballot box, is likely to instil the habit of voting throughout later life.

With the advent of the EU Referendum Bill, I thought that even those who had reservations would surely accept that 16 and 17 year olds who had so successfully been given a say in the 2014 Scottish referendum could not be excluded from the franchise in a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.  Labour told us that they agreed.

Our campaign then started out quite well.  With cross-party support for the principle at Committee Stage (when the Lords rarely votes), and then a thumping majority of 82 for the amendment at Report Stage, we were set-fair to force a government rethink. Or so you would think.

The Conservative Whips – inevitably – worked hard to overturn our amendment in the Commons, chivvying Tory MPs through the lobby. Yet they were aided by 42 Labour MPs who either abstained or went AWOL, assisting in a 50 vote defeat at that end.  Disappointed (to say the least), we asked if Labour Peers would stand firm with us in continuing to push for the democratic rights of our fellow citizens.  Would they be there in numbers to support their own policy of Votes at 16 when the matter came back to the Lords?

Labour said they would. And up the hill we all trooped on Monday, with 89% of Lib Dem Peers present and ready to defeat the government again. But where were our Labour companions on that march?  More than a third of them were absent or abstained.  Just as when they ruined the opportunity to stop the Government unilaterally striking two million people off the electoral register earlier this year, their approach seems to provide opposition right up to the point of ever making any difference.

The way in which Ministers scared the Lords into surrender was deplorable but predictable. They sabre-rattled that this essentially democratic, constitutional issue was actually one of ‘financial privilege’ for the Commons. As I said in my speech, when a whip is losing an argument on substance, he or she changes the subject. And yesterday it worked a treat.

This Government came to office worried that it might have to flood the Lords, or clip its wings, or both, since Labour and Lib Dem peers would outnumber Conservatives so substantially. Amid the recent hullabaloo over tax credits, Lord (Tom) Strathclyde was dispatched with the ‘urgent’ task of working out what should be done to give life to these threats.

Yet Tom needn’t waste his time, ink or breath while the Labour Party in the House of Lords is so supine. More concerned with preserving their own place in the rickety British constitution – or obsessed with their own civil war – the Government can rely on them to fade away whenever it really counts.

And so I am sad to report that 16 and 17 year olds will be left out of the biggest decision facing the country, and affecting their future, in a generation. We Lib Dems will continue the fightfor their enfranchisement.  If you get the chance, remind any Labour politician you encounter, that it is they who flunked it – just as they have on so many other matters of constitutional reform. From the AV referendum, to Lords reform, to party funding, Labour has messed up every chance for real change.

Now – without Lib Dems in Government – Labour’s ineffectiveness means not just opportunities for progress missed, but opportunities to regress conceded. The chaotic shower of the resurrected Old Labour Party is giving the Conservatives a free rein to fiddle with electoral law in their own party interest, to retreat on Freedom of Information, to resuscitate the Snooper’s Charter, to turn somersaults on renewable energy, and to decimate social housing stock and to reduce support for low wage workers. And all with the endorsement of only ¼ of the eligible electorate.

With no effective Official Opposition, it is up to us to stop them getting away with it!

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