EU referendum: The fact 16 and 17-year-olds couldn’t vote on the most important decision of their lives is a disgrace

'What we face now are the tangible, real-world consequences of Brexit, and the youngest in society are going to be on the sharp end of them'

Ebbi Ferguson
Monday 27 June 2016 08:16
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Just over half of the UK voted to leave the European Union yesterday, but look at how the balance between Remain and Leave breaks down by age. A poll conducted prior to the vote found 64 per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 wanted to remain, while only 24 per cent wanted to leave. At the other end of the spectrum, 58 per cent of over-65s wanted to leave.

The older you were, the more likely you were to vote Leave. The younger you were, the more likely you were to vote Remain.

Young people - the people who will have to live with this decision for a lifetime - wanted to stay in. And unlike in the Scottish referendum, 16 and 17-year-olds didn’t get a say on the most important decision of their lives. That’s why Brexit is another example of how important it is to secure votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, and how outrageous it was they were shut out of their own future on this occasion.

The fact that 16 and 17-year-olds - about a million and a half people - were shut out of this decision is an absolute disgrace. NUS polls have shown around 75 per cent of them would have voted if given the chance - and it’s easy to see why. They’re going to have to live with the consequences of this decision for about 70 years, and it’ll affect every area of their lives from education, to jobs, to travel, to peace, and politics.

Leave voter didn't want Brexit

I’ve long-worked with Votes at 16 to make the case for extending the franchise, and NUS was a founding member. It is hypocritical and unfair to prohibit 16 and 17-year-olds from voting. When you’re 16, you can leave home, pay taxes, get married, and even join the armed forces - but you can’t vote. And, for this age bracket, the stakes have never been higher than they were in the EU referendum.

Campaigning was a competition of values and principles. For me, Remain was about wanting to be part of an internationalist community, based on peace and collaboration. The Leave campaign was about looking inwards and backwards, feeding on fear and isolationism. But the battle of ideas and slogans is over. What we face now are the tangible, real-world consequences of Brexit, and the youngest in society are going to be on the sharp end of them.

Aside from the initial economic and political impacts of pulling out of the EU, we also have to face up to the challenges of a brash Brexit government which will be going after the things young people care about most. Keep your eye on the Human Rights Act. Keep your eye on the Climate Change Act. Keep your eye on the price of education, and the ability to access decent healthcare.

For young people, the future looks bleak, and we knew this was on the cards. That’s why so many of got involved in the campaign, going out to rallies, canvassing on the streets, and trying to convince older members of their family we’re better off in the EU. But, when it actually came to polling day, there was nothing anyone under 18 could do but stand aside and watch it happen in horror.

This can’t happen again. The next time there’s an opportunity to shape the future of our country, all young people must be at the heart of it. We need votes at 16 - now.

Ebbi Ferguson is NUS Wales deputy president

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