John Humphrys - Voting: Who Should Have the Right?

May 19, 2023, 10:00 AM GMT+0

We can probably all agree that the more people who exercise their right to vote, the stronger our democracy becomes. Rather more controversial is the question of who should get that right. It’s pretty straightforward as far as the UK parliament is concerned. Anyone can vote so long as they are eighteen or over and are not in prison or the House of Lords. Some qualify if they are citizens of a Commonwealth country or Ireland and live here. Irish nationals and qualifying Commonwealth citizens, who do not require leave to enter or remain in the UK, can already vote in all British elections as a result of historic ties.

But it’s possible that many more will qualify if Sir Keir Starmer becomes prime minister – including sixteen and seventeen year-olds and some EU citizens. And that, in turn, could mean an end to our first-past-the-post system too. Where do you stand?

The subject is back on the political agenda because Sir Keir has confessed that he has given some thought to changing the system if he were to become prime minister. So, on the one hand there is no firm commitment from him, but on the other he hasn’t ruled it out. And the reason his political opponents are so opposed to the changes is they claim they would hugely increase the prospect of Labour governments in the future and also the chances of us re-joining the EU.

There are about 1.4 million 16 and 17 year-olds in the UK. There’s an old saying that if you’re not a liberal when you’re a youngster you have no heart and if you’re not a conservative in your thirties you have no head. A bit sweeping maybe, but there’s plenty of evidence that shows teenagers are indeed far more likely to be on the left of politics than on the right.

The arguments for allowing younger teenagers the vote have been well-rehearsed over recent years. The most basic is that at the age of 16 you simply don’t have the experience of life in the real world to be able to exercise judgement. To which a thoughtful, well-informed 16 year-old might point to an idiotic 18 year-old who’s drunk more often than he’s sober and expostulate: ‘And you’re telling me HE does!’

There are, of course, many different arguments. If you don’t pay tax you should have no say on how taxes are raised. If you can’t fight on the front line in battle or if you can’t even get married until you’re 18 the same basic principal should apply. The list is as long as you wish to make it. So is the list of reasons for lowering the age to sixteen as has happened under devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Tory party is, unsurprisingly, piling into Starmer’s musings - especially where it might affect European nationals. Their research, according to the Daily Mail, suggests that if we do go down the road of broadening the electorate its effect would be sufficient to swing every general election in Labour’s favour. As well as the 3.4 million European Union nationals who have lived in this country before Brexit and obtained settled status, it could add another 2.7 million more who have been here for less than five years. It might also cover an estimated 2.3 million citizens of other countries around the world who have been granted indefinite leave to remain in the past two decades.

Labour has already tried to change electoral law to give the vote to anyone with the ‘right of abode in the UK’. Shadow ministers tabled amendments to the elections bill in January 2022 under the title ‘enfranchisement of certain foreign nationals at parliamentary elections’. They called for ‘settled EU citizens and anyone with leave to remain’ to be allowed to vote.

Analysis by Conservative campaign headquarters suggests that, even if only two-thirds of foreign citizens and under eighteens voted Labour, the party would have won every election in recent UK history. In 2019 only 37% of the new electorate would have been needed to put Jeremy Corbyn in Downing St. Their conclusion: it would ‘permanently tip the electoral scales in Labour’s favour and usher in a century of left wing rule.’

The Conservative party chair, Greg Hands, has accused Starmer of a plot to “rig the electorate”. His predecessor in the role, Nadhim Zahawi said it was a move to “soften the nation” to get the UK back into the EU.

But Starmer is adamant that none of this will make it into the party's election manifesto. What he has said is that it “feels wrong” to exclude EU citizens who live and pay tax in the UK from general elections. As for non-citizens settled here who are citizens of other countries, he has also said it does not pass the “common sense test” that settled migrants who have worked in the UK for decades do not have full voting rights. The thinking behind it, he’s said, that is ‘if someone’s been here say 10, 20, 30 years, contributing to this economy, contributing to the community, they ought to be able to vote.’ The Times says there is a solution for this person: ‘It is Form AN — an application for naturalisation after five years’ residence with proof of good character — and you get it from the Home Office. Job done.’

And on the question of for voting rights for 16- and 17-year-olds, he said this: ‘They can have babies, they can work, they can join the army, so there are big things you can do at 16 and 17. And again, it’s not such an outlandish idea. In Wales it already happens, in Scotland it already happens.’

He told the Times: ‘This is not policy … we've got five missions, none of them involving electoral change.’ He is also adamant that if he makes it to Number 10 he would not support a re-run of the Brexit referendum. To which his critics say he might be perfectly sincere at this stage in the electoral cycle, but what if there were a few million votes at stake? And what if he does indeed win the election – which has to take place before the end of next year – but fails to gain an overall majority?

In this scenario the Liberal Democrats will have taken enough seats from the Tories to put them in a pretty powerful position. We all know what price they will demand for joining a coalition government: electoral reform. Some form of proportional representation. And this time they just might get it. We would wave goodbye to first-past-the-post and accept that even the relative minnows in our electoral pond would be able to exercise real influence on the government. Or, quite possibly, not just on the government but actually in it.

So where do you stand in this debate? Do you agree with the Times view that the right to vote in a national election ‘demands a higher test than simple residency or economic integration’ and is an abiding commitment to certain values, irrespective of ethnicity, religious belief or other factors’? Or should the right rest on whether you have lived here for a certain amount of time and pay UK Taxes? And should 16 and 17 year-olds get the right to vote in Westminster elections?

Let us know what you think.