Back in October, when the general election bill was tearing through parliament faster than a squirrel that’s just seen Jo Swinson, something very significant occurred in which the election was almost handed to Labour before the campaign period had even begun. Opposition MPs tabled amendments to grant voting rights to two new groups for the first time ever: 16- and 17-year-olds, and EU citizens living in the UK.
Then-Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle jettisoned those amendments, no doubt winning over countless Tory MPs in the process and contributing to his landslide victory in the speakership election the following week. But if those votes had taken place and been won by Opposition MPs, as seemed likely, Boris Johnson might as well have given Jeremy Corbyn the keys to No 10 there and then.
If the Labour leader triumphs on Thursday he will surely seek to extend the franchise again. The implications could be enormous—for the political parties and for British democracy.
The most immediate consequences of these changes to the size and shape of the electorate if enacted by a new Labour government would be seen in the Brexit referendum that it intends to call.
For starters, there are an estimated 2.24m EU nationals working in the UK, my family among them. That is equivalent to around 5 per cent of the existing voting population; a staggering quantity which would result in a sudden and wild electoral imbalance, like placing an anvil on a seesaw.
EU citizens are, of course, considerably more Europhilic than the population as a whole, since they are connected to the continent in a way that the rest of us are not. Corbyn was called out by Johnson in one of the hundreds of interminable TV debates in this election for his “sly attempt” to “fiddle” the result of that vote in favour of Remain.
Giving EU citizens a vote on Europe would be like giving Londoners a vote on Scottish independence. It is not their place to make that decision. Further, EU citizens were unable to vote in 2016, so allowing them to vote now on the same question would be unfair and undemocratic.
And that is before we get to 16- and 17-year-olds. There will already be stronger Remain support in any second referendum without rule changes, thanks to “organic expansion” of its voter base. Of the young people who have turned 18 since 2016, a staggering 74 per cent say they would vote Remain. Dropping the age threshold to 16, then, is likely to flood polling stations with many more young Remain supporters.
But even more concerning for Conservatives than the impact of extended suffrage on the second Brexit referendum is its consequences in future elections, in which Labour will give the vote to all UK residents, including both EU and non-EU migrants. Foreign-born voters tend to vote Labour in disproportionate numbers—as do young people. In 2017, 18-29 year olds were 50 per cent more likely to vote Labour than the population at large. That, of course, is why Corbyn is so eager to give them the vote.
If these reforms were implemented, they would constitute the largest extension of suffrage in the UK since 1969, when the voting age was dropped from 21 to 18. In that case, the change came about after the National Union of Students won a High Court case on the issue. Its victory was upheld as a great step forward for the rights of students and young people and their voices in the political system.
On this occasion, there are no legal or constitutional grounds for such sweeping reforms—the motives behind them are purely political. Labour has simply spotted an opportune moment to inflate its voter base. Whoever forms the next government, they will surely seek to repeal or rewrite the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which now draws universal ire to rival that of Katie Hopkins. While changing up the way we vote is on the agenda, Corbyn seemingly hopes to slip through these “democratic” reforms and thereby brick up the door of 10 Downing Street while he is inside.
A potential spanner in the works for Labour’s plan is the possibility of an independent Scotland. Since an outright Labour majority seems unlikely, Corbyn will probably have to rely on SNP support to form a government, and even deaf chimpanzees on the other side of the world have noticed that the price for that support will be a second indyref, which Labour has repeatedly indicated is a price it is willing to pay. If Scotland leaves the UK, it will take with it ripe ground on which Labour could otherwise have sought to gain more seats.
However, in the wholly plausible scenario that Corbyn forms a government and Scotland remains British, Labour will be able to solidify its position on the government benches in ways the Conservatives could only dream of. In other words, if Corbyn loses on Thursday, he will vanish from the face of the Earth; but if he wins, and manages to remain prime minister of a still united UK, he will be able to stay in that role for a very long time indeed.