We need radical reform to revive our democracy

  • Giving 16- and 17-year-olds a vote in the EU referendum is an important first step.

  • Chuka Umunna MP

While we do not yet know the exact date of the referendum on our membership of the European Union, it is clear that the outcome of this vote will affect Britain for many years to come.

I will be campaigning to stay in the EU, as I strongly believe that this is best for our economic prosperity, national security and society.

But I will also be fighting for the government to give 16- and 17-year-olds their say in this once-in-a-generation decision. After all, the vote to stay or remain in the EU will not just affect people aged 18 and over. Sixteen- and 17-year-old workers enjoy the protection of EU employment laws; many of them are employed in some of the millions of British jobs linked to our EU membership; and can live and study aboard as part of the EU’s Erasmus programme.

Despite all this Tory members of parliament have, once again, shamefully lined up to stop young people having their say in this referendum. They recycled all the same old arguments that 16- and 17-year-olds are irresponsible and are incapable of taking important decisions. This is complete and utter rubbish.

If 16- and 17-year-olds are irresponsible then why, under the law, do we believe them mature enough to rent accommodation, get married, give consent to medical treatment, claim benefits, and join the armed forces?

If 16- and 17-year-olds are incapable of taking important decisions then how do you explain the huge level of engagement and turnout among empowered young people in the Scottish referendum?

This out-of-touch Tory government cannot see that most 16- and 17-year-olds today are passionate about their community and their futures. Our young people have more responsibilities and knowledge than ever before, and are extremely engaged with the issues and causes that matter most to them.

Some opponents to votes at 16 argue that not all young people are politically active, this is of course true, but then neither are all 40-, 50- or 60-year olds. And no one, quite rightly, is suggesting that they should not be allowed to have their say.

Later today, Labour peers in the House of Lords will, once again, make a stand on this important issue. I am proud of their work on this and they have my full support. In the Commons we will continue to do all we can to ensure that 16- and 17-year-olds are able to join the debate and have their say on the future of our country.

All of this goes to the heart of a wider issue – public apathy with politicians and our political system. We need radical reform to revive our democracy. Giving 16- and 17-year-olds a vote in the EU referendum is an important first step. But I do not just support votes at 16 for referendums, I want it for all future elections. I also want better political education in our schools, more resources for voter registration, and reform of our voting system to a system of proportional representation.