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When young people are enfranchised a new voting force will enter politics and the needs of youth will receive far more attention than they have so far.
Moreover, democracy in this country urgently needs the vigour and impatience of youth…
This is largely because lowering the voting age to 18 is seen as an inevitable and uncontroversial outcome of changing societal attitudes to young people.
And clearly, at a macro level, this was part of a much wider process of reform in Western liberal democracies, most of which followed suit in the 1970s.
The Young Conservatives were particularly successful in recruiting among the young middle class, with over 160,000 members at their high point in 1949, and some 93,000 in 1957.
With the emergence of a more affluent and better-educated society from the mid-1950s however, there was a widespread sense that the younger generation was very different from their elders.
The recent Briefing Paper on the Voting Age, written by Neil Johnston and Noel Dempsey of the House of Commons Library, refers to 1960s debates about lowering the voting age to only to establish that ‘historically the Conservative Party has generally opposed reducing the voting age.’ Gaps in public knowledge are partly to be explained by the lack of scholarly work on the 1969 Representation of the People Act.
There has not yet been a single detailed study of the passage of this legislation, and it is referred to only briefly in most histories of the period.
But Britain was the first major democratic nation to lower the voting age to 18, and the passage of this legislation was by no means straightforward: Parliament was divided about it, as was public opinion, and there was considerable scepticism and anxiety within the Labour government that passed it.
Examining what happened before and after the 1969 Act helps us both to understand the dynamics of voting age debates – the hopes and fears on either side, the difficulties of resolving the discussions – and also to explain why the legislation did not generate the levels of political participation among young people that reformers had anticipated.
During and immediately after the Second World War, motions to lower the voting age to 18 were decisively rejected without full parliamentary debate, and only the Communist party showed any sustained interest in the issue.