In 1969 the Representation of the People Act ensured that the right to vote was extended to 18 year olds and over, three years after it appeared on the Labour Party general election manifesto. The manifesto pledged that the enfranchisement of those between 18 and 21 would “add a necessary political dimension to the increasingly important economic and social position of young people”. But what suddenly prompted this increase in status for young people? What concerned the youth of the time? And was providing the vote going to help?
In the swinging sixties youth culture was at the forefront of fashion, music and film. At this point you can barely find documentaries about the sixties that don’t reference The Beatles, Twiggy, The Who or Vietnam Protests. It’s clear that the sixties was the era of the youth. This was the first generation that had little memory of the Second World War and the first generation that were able to spend their money without being limited by rationing. This culture, fused with a ‘baby boom’ ensured that out of the ashes of the war a new identity could be formed.
The doubling of Universities allowed a section of the youth to engage with the issue of rights and political causes further. For instance some helped organise protests against a proposed involvement in the Vietnam War. 18 year olds could join the army and fight, but had no representation in parliament so they could not express their views on a conflict they might be involved in. Some protested the lack of student representation in Universities. If they were part of this organisation after all, they should be able to represent themselves.
Outside of Universities the increased provision of apprenticeships helped spur political activism further. Protests were organised to highlight the pay inequalities for different age groups. In many apprenticeships it was possible to have the right to perform all the tasks a 21 year old could, but with a fraction of the wages. This lack of distinction in rights was reflected further in wider society with 18 year olds having much of the same rights as 21 year olds.
There was a clear disenfranchisement with the establishment, but most matters were met begrudgingly. Most election addresses that mentioned the youth only discussed providing them with ‘youth facilities’. Such vague language merely reflects the perception that the older generation were out of touch.
This is why you might expect that the Representation of the People Act of 1969 to be warmly greeted by the baby boomers. A victory for the uncouth youth over the stiff collared old men. But historically it’s one of the forgotten voting reforms. For the youth of the era, it was an establishment form of change. Why should they need the vote if they can change things through action? Why would the establishment suddenly care about youth representation? The reduction in voting age could easily be conceived as a cynical ploy by the Labour party to prop up their votes, a form of appeasement to distract from real issues about youth culture.
These points are still relevant today. If we fast-forward to the year 2016, the debate about lowering the voting age further is on the rise. The involvement of 16 year olds in the referendum about Scottish Independence was considered a success and the growth of a different youth identity during the ‘war on terror’ era could provide the youth of today with a unique perspective compared to their peers. But I would strongly urge those debating votes at 16 to not forget the Representation of the People Act. By looking at the forgotten act, it may provide answers as how to get representation and to what extent representation will help youth matters.