Will old people decide the EU referendum?

Jon Danzig |

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Although they will have to live with the decision for longer than anyone else, young people will have the least say on whether Britain stays in the EU.

Ironically, what is arguably the world’s oldest unelected group of legislators – the House of Lords – voted recently to give 16-to-17-year-olds a vote in the EU referendum. But this month the elected House of Commons threw out the Lord’s proposal.

It means that over 1.5 million 16-and-17-year-olds in the UK will not have a say in Britain’s future in Europe – even though it’s their future, in the long term, that will be most affected.

For sure, their votes could have clinched the referendum result, because surveys show that most younger people want Britain to stay in the EU.

It’s sometimes said that you cannot miss what you never had. But that’s not the case for many of the 121,000 16-and-17-year-olds in Scotland. They were permitted to vote in last year’s referendum on Scottish independence and most of them did.

Commented the Electoral Commission, “This referendum showed that for young people, indeed for all voters, when they perceive an issue to be important and are inspired by it, they will both participate in the debate and show up on polling day.”

“Importantly,” the Commission added, “97% of those 16-17 year olds who reported having voted said that they would vote again in future elections and referendums.”

They would vote, and last year they could vote; but now they can’t. It must seem strange winning a right that’s then taken away.

In the UK 16-to-17-year-olds can work, pay tax, join the army and get married, but they can’t vote in the forthcoming EU referendum.

Too young? Well, that wasn’t the reason given by the House of Commons for denying access to democracy for younger people. The Commons rejected the enlightened wisdom of their elders in the House of Lords, “Because it would involve a charge on public funds.”

What price democracy, eh?

But whilst 16-and-17-year-olds would vote but can’t, those aged 18-to-24 can vote, but mostly don’t. In elections, this age group is almost half as likely to vote as those aged 65 and over.

Around 40% of the 18-24s vote, compared to almost 80% of those of pensionable age.

And yet, once again, surveys show that these young people are by a large majority in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the European Union.

A poll last month revealed that EU membership is supported by 70% of  the UK’s two-million University students, but less than half of them said they would definitely vote in the referendum.

Giving lip service to the EU isn’t enough. Without casting a vote, it doesn’t matter what these young adults think. No vote means no say.

In summary:

• Most over 60s want Britain to leave the EU; they outnumber 18-24 year-olds two-to-one, and they are most likely to vote.

• Most under 25s want Britain to remain in the EU, but there are just 7 million of them compared to around 14 million over 60s, and they are least likely to vote.

In other words, it seems that the oldies may have a bigger say in Britain’s future in Europe, simply because they can vote, and they will.

And even though most young people are pro EU, they will have less of a say in the referendum because they can’t vote, or they won’t.

In addition, two other groups of citizens who will be greatly affected by the EU referendum won’t vote because they can’t.

They include most of the citizens from the rest of the EU who have made Britain their home. And they include all of the British citizens who are living in other parts of the European Union for more than 15 years.

These two groups of citizens are living the EU dream by voting with their feet for free movement of people across our continent. But they will have no say on whether that dream continues. And if the referendum decision is ‘LEAVE’, their dream could turn into an involuntary nightmare of uncertain proportions.

Yet, despite the fact that many of the people who will be most affected by the EU referendum can’t or won’t vote, latest opinion polls show that voters who have made up their minds are split down the middle.

In online polls, those voters who want to ‘LEAVE’ the EU and those who want to ‘REMAIN’ are equal at about 40%, with (curiously) slightly more wanting Britain to ‘REMAIN’ when polls are conducted by phone.

Almost a fifth of voters, however, are still unsure how they will vote in the referendum.

These undecided voters may hold the key to the referendum result; together, of course, with those young voters who can vote – if only they can be persuaded to vote. 

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