It’s all happening in the House of Lords this week. The Conservative Party, former stalwart guardians of the Upper House, have taken to highlighting the other place’s lack of democracy (it’s been that way for some time now, guys), with the whiff of “constitutional crisis” in the air (being talked about on this occasion, ironically, by anyone but the usual suspects who cry constitutional crisis at the first sign of the slightest parliamentary log jam, mostly because they all reside on the left of British politics and thus don’t want to carp too loudly about something that may turf substantial cuts to tax credits).
But what I’m here to talk about today is another vote in the Lords that has nothing to do with tax credits whatsoever, one taking place today very possibly. This one is to do with whether 16 and 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote in the EU referendum, whenever that should take place. What I have to wonder is this: for all the talk on the Tory frontbenches about the Lords getting too big for their britches, could this be one that Cameron and Osborne secretly hope to lose?
I start with this thesis: Cameron and Osborne are going to campaign for In at some point. I’ve argued before why I don’t think they can do otherwise at this stage, so I won’t revisit all those reasons, other than to say I of course hear the opposite every single day from someone in the Conservative Party. Anyhow, taking that as read for the time being, wouldn’t a “loss” on this in the Lords help the In campaign? After all, if Europhilia gets statistically more likely the younger you get, wouldn’t having younger people voting help the cause? Of course I should point out here that the younger you are, the less likely you are to actually vote at all, so any idea of a flood of teenagers keeping us in the European Union should be taken with a grain of salt.
However, there is another problem for the Conservatives, even the most pro-European Conservatives: having had votes at 16 for two incredibly important referenda in a row, what is the argument then against preventing 16-year-olds from voting at local and general elections? If someone who is 16 can decide the future of their country, why can they not be entrusted with having a say in who runs that very same country day to day? The idea of keeping the voting age at 18 then becomes incredibly precarious – indeed, it would be ironic if a vote that’s being held mostly to keep the Conservative Party together ends up accidentally delivering voting reform for the young, a long campaigned for item on the centre-left. But we do live in strange political times.