EU referendum: who gets to vote?

Two thirds of the way into her speech at the State Opening of Parliament this afternoon, the Queen announced what we’ve all been expecting:

“My government will renegotiate the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union and pursue reform of the European Union for the benefit of all Member States. Alongside this, early legislation will be introduced to provide for an in-out referendum on membership of the European Union before the end of 2017.”

With the speech now out of the way, the EU Referendum Bill is expected to be introduced into the Commons tomorrow. Focus is now firmly on when the referendum will take place — many expect May 2016, though this may well be left open in the draft — but also, importantly, who will have the right to vote in it.

In their election manifesto, the Conservatives clearly stated that they would extend the right to vote to all UK citizens living abroad:

“We will complete the electoral register by working to include more of the five million Britons who live abroad. We will introduce votes for life, scrapping the rule that bars British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years from voting”

But, when it comes to the referendum, it seems from government communications this week that normal general election voting rules will apply. If the Tories do go ahead and break their promise as far as the referendum is concerned, many people directly affected by the decision will be disenfranchised.

The indication that general election voting rules will apply for the referendum has also instantly denied the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds. Yet these same people voted in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Indeed, 25% of such voters have since joined a political party. We simply cannot miss out on this opportunity to have so many young voices heard and actively engaged in civic life.

This referendum is not like a general election, where we can change direction five years later. It’s a one-off decision with historic consequences that will have lasting impact throughout everyone’s lifetime. This was the rationale behind lowering the voting age in the Scottish referendum. If it was a valid argument for 16- and 17-year-old Scots, why is it not valid for 16- and 17-year-old English, Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish citizens?

The good news is that there does seem to be an appetite to amend the EU Referendum Bill in the Lords, and Labour have committed to do all that it can in both Houses to exploit the government’s relative weakness, to try to ensure young people are allowed to vote in the EU referendum.

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