Blair will give vote to 16-year-olds

Labour plans to lower the age at which people are allowed to vote from 18 to 16, even though the move has been rejected by the independent body which supervises elections in Britain.

When the Electoral Commission decided to oppose the idea last month, it was widely assumed that the proposal would die. But ministers revealed yesterday that they intend to ignore the commission's advice and go ahead.

They will put the move to the Labour conference this autumn and intend to include it in Labour's manifesto at the general election expected in a year's time.

The idea has strong support among Labour's grass-roots members and has won the backing of Tony Blair; Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor; Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons; Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, and David Miliband, the Schools minister.

The determination of ministers to press on could result in the first clash between the Government and the commission since it was set up by Parliament in 2002. One senior Labour source said yesterday: "The commission does not have a veto. We will listen carefully to what it said and we will take account of its arguments. But we will make our own decision."

A party official said the commission's report came too late to prevent the "votes at 16" plan being discussed during Labour's policy-making process. He said it would therefore be on the agenda for the conference in Brighton.

There has been a heated debate over the voting age since Labour raised the issue in its "Big Conversation" consultation document last year. Supporters believe the plan will combat disengagement by encouraging people to take an interest in politics at a younger age. Research by Mori has found that more than half of the 15-24 age group is "not interested in politics" and the turn-out among 18- to 24-year-olds at the last election was 39 per cent, significantly lower than the overall figure of 59 per cent.

But after a year-long inquiry, the commission said there was no case for allowing people to vote at 16. It found that most countries in Europe, and the United States and Canada, had a minimum voting age of 18. Although 16-year-olds can marry and join the army in Britain, they need the permission of their parents, and the commission said these rights were not comparable with voting.

Its study found that voter turn-out would drop further if the voting age were reduced because there would be more eligible but disengaged voters. Research by ICM found that 73 per cent of the public backed the present system and only 25 per cent wanted a lower voting age.

Sam Younger, the commission's chairman, said the body would revisit the issue within seven years but admitted that last month's report was not binding on the Government. Ministers do not want to wait until after another formal review. However, the commission called for the age at which people are allowed to stand for Parliament to be lowered from 21 to 18, a move expected to be implemented by Labour in the same legislation.

Ministers intend to include "votes at 16" in a package of constitutional reforms in the manifesto to show that it has not run out of ideas. In July, the Government will set up an internal review of the voting system for Westminster, which will consider proportional representation. The changes are designed in part to dissuade Labour supporters from defecting to the Liberal Democrats, who support lowering the voting age.

Labour officials are worried that disaffected supporters will cost the party seats at the general election by switching to the Liberal Democrats. They fear this would help the Tories win a string of marginal seats.

Further report, page 10

Leading article, page 32

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