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banner Wednesday, 26 September, 2001, 13:11 GMT 14:11 UK
Raging youth demand votes
It was the "cod war" of the 1970s that brought Lembit Opik, now Liberal Democrat spokesman on youth and asteroids, among other things, into politics.

The Montgomeryshire MP reminisced at a joint Liberal Democrat Youth & Students and Electoral Reform Society conference fringe meeting that that as a mere 10-year-old stripling, he found himself leading one side of a schoolroom debate on the issue.

Not one single 16 or 17-year-old was responsible for electing Margaret Thatcher. That was all the grown-ups' fault!

Lembit Opik MP
"If at the age of 10 I can have a debate about that, then you should be able to vote at 16."

Miranda Piercy, LDYS chair, joined the Liberal Democrats at 12 - only to be appalled when she realised it would be another six years before she would be allowed to vote for the party for which she rapidly became an energetic activist.

"There is this assumption that until the age of about 30 you are totally incapable of genuinely holding a serious political view of your own," she complained.

"When you're a young person in politics you do get a lot of flak," she added, conceding also that "it is a very odd thing to do".

This attitude, however, was a significant factor in the youth voter apathy afflicting the electorate.

That, and the fact that "young people get screwed over year on year", could be significantly helped by allowing people to vote at 16.

Lee Pettman told the meeting that at 17, he is the youngest member of the Electoral Reform Society's ruling council.

"Apart from paying taxes and being able to be sent to fight for your country, I believe that today young people are mentally and socially more able than ever before to vote," he said.

The ERS was hoping to build a broad coalition across parties to back votes at 16. Some parties were more receptive than others, needless to say.

The Lib Dems, who included the policy in its manifesto in June, were the most on board.

"We had tried to hold a fringe meeting like this one next week at Labour's conference," he revealed. "But apparently, 'Mr Blair would not approve'."

Lembit Opik - here a positively geriatric 36 years old - ended by ridiculing the notion that a young person enjoyed a sudden gain in intelligence between the ages of 16 and the current voting age lower limit of 18.

After all, "not one single 16 or 17-year-old was responsible for electing Margaret Thatcher".

"That was all the grown-ups' fault!"

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