David Cameron wants the electorate for the referendum to be essentially the same as for general elections, but Labour and the SNP have said they want 16- and 17-year-olds to be allowed to vote in the poll, which is due before the end of 2017.
A Labour source said that, given teenagers have a “tremendous vested interest in whether or not we stay in the EU or leave”, there could be a strong appetite for amending the EU referendum bill in the Lords, even if Labour and the SNP fail to recruit the relatively small number of Tory rebels they would need to defeat the government in the Commons.
In a move that will be welcomed by Ukip, Downing Street has confirmed that most non-British EU citizens living in the UK will not be allowed to vote in the referendum because the franchise will the broadly the same as that used for general elections: British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK. In addition, members of the House of Lords and Commonwealth citizens living in Gibraltar will be included.
Other EU citizens can vote in local elections and European elections, and the Ukip leader Nigel Farage raised alarm at the prospect of their being included, but Number 10 has now rejected this idea.
In an article published on the Guardian’s website, Angus Robertson, the SNP’s leader at Westminster, said the referendum should follow “best practice” and this meant allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote. “Young people are our future. It is their UK – and their Europe – so they must have their say,” he said.
Robertson insisted this was a long-standing SNP concern, saying his maiden speech had been about votes at 16 and that Winnie Ewing devoted her maiden speech to lowering the voting age after her historic win in the Hamilton byelection in 1967.
After Harriet Harman’s announcement on Sunday that Labour was reversing its opposition to an EU referendum, which she said was motivated partly by the message the party had received from voters, a spokesman said Labour would be backing amendments to the bill, being introduced to parliament on Thursday, for voting at 16.
Officially the government has a majority of 11 in the Commons, meaning that a defeat on this issue is possible, although lowering the voting age is not a cause particularly attractive to rebellion-inclined Tories. But in the Lords, Labour (with 212 peers) and the Lib Dems (100 peers), who are strongly in favour of voting at 16, easily outnumber the Conservatives (224).
Polls suggest young people are much more likely to favour EU membership than the population at large. A recent YouGov survey found that, although the electorate overall favoured remaining in the EU by a margin of 10 points (45% for staying, 35% for leaving), among 18- to 24-year-olds the margin was 48 points (63% for staying, 15% for leaving).
In his article, Roberston also said the SNP would try to amend the referendum bill to include a “double majority” rule “meaning that unless England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each vote to leave the EU, as well as the UK as a whole, Britain would remain a member state”.
Labour and the government are both opposed to this. A Labour spokesman said the EU vote was a decision for the UK as a whole.
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