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The day Swaffham's youth made voting history

PUBLISHED: 17:30 12 February 2010 | UPDATED: 11:38 08 July 2010

Rob Garratt

It was 40 years ago this month that the minimum voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, ushering in thousands of new voters eager to make their voice heard.

It was 40 years ago this month that the minimum voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, ushering in thousands of new voters eager to make their voice heard. Remarkably, it was a handful of young people in a Norfolk village who had the first opportunity to exercise their right to vote, as ROB GARRATT discovered.

Young voters are expected to play a crucial role in deciding which party leads our country following the looming general election.

People in their teens and early twenties will be voting for the first time, blank slates yet to align themselves to any one political party.

They are voters that help make up the decisive floating minority; not yet set in their ways, possessing minds still fertile to the campaigns, policies and ideologies of all parties.

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the voting age being lowered from 21 to 18. But it is believed to be an obscure, now-defunct district council seat in rural Norfolk where young voters first had the opportunity to exercise their right.

The legislation formally came into force from February 15, 1970. Just 10 days later, taking part on a one-off by-election, voters in their late teens and early twenties helped elect Charles Henry Kneeshaw to the Holme Hale seat of Swaffham Rural District Council.

It was not until a general election in June 1970 that the bulk of the country felt the full force of the change.

However recollections suggest that the youngsters voting for the first time were unaware of the monumental change they were witnessing.

Paul Ison was chairman of the Swaffham Urban District Council at the time of the Holme Hale vote, and has been involved in local government for 30 years, elected as Swaffham's town mayor five times.

He said: “There weren't street parties, dances and discos - it was just legislation, and next week they could queue up at the voting booth. I don't think anyone even noticed; it was just a logical progression.

“When I was 18 and in the army I was capable of fighting for my country - so I was certainly capable of voting.”

The Holme Hale seat was left empty after the death of its sitting member, reported in the EDP at the time as a Mrs L Cook.

Mr Kneeshaw, 72, a garage proprietor living at Sunnydale, narrowly beat a single opponent, Alec Hunt, a shopkeeper of School Road, with a majority of 82 to 79.

At the time the council clerk Mr J S Burton praised the high turnout, with more than 68pc of the village population of voting age making their voice heard.

There were 40 new names on the village's electrical roll for the election, bringing the total to 235, but it is not clear how many of these were young voters.

The EDP noted at the time: “Although for the first time 18-year-olds were entitled to vote, there was no indication how they affected the result.”

Geoff Trant, clerk of today's Holme Hale Parish Council, said Mr Kneeshaw is believed to have moved from the area, while it is believed that Mr Hunt has died.

However Mr Trant noted that a Mr Kneeshaw crops up on records a year later, being co-opted into a parish council seat in March 1971 to replace a retiring councillor.

Ian Vargerson, member services officer at Breckland Council, has been involved in running elections for more than 40 years, managing them for 20 years, and also says the date passed without little fanfare - and did little to improve voter turnout.

He said: “I have never noticed anything different since the change.

“When you look at what else you can do at 18 - drive a car and everything else - you were treated as an adult so it's reasonable that should be the case for voting. But I don't think it had any effect on turnout or much else.”

Britain was one of the first countries to lower the voting to 18. While Czechoslovakia spearheaded the change as early as 1946, Britain joined Germany and Canada in lowering the age in 1970.

The following year the USA and the Netherlands followed suit, while Sweden and Finland lowered their voting ages to 18 in 1972. Ireland and Australia made the change in 1973, France and New Zealand in 1974, Italy in 1975 and Denmark and Spain in 1978. Switzerland did not lower the age until 1991, Austria in 1992 and Turkey in 2001.

For some people though, 18 is not young enough and for the last 10 years - since the Houses of Commons voted in an overwhelming majority against lowering the age to 16 in December 1999 - there has been talk of further reductions. A number of countries, including Austria, Brazil, Jersey, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man have reduced their age of majority to 16.

Prof Heather Savigny, senior lecturer in politics at UEA, argues there is a case for lowering the voting age to 16 in a bid to engage the public in politics.

“There's a lot of dissolution and apathy towards politics, especially in younger voters,” she said. “At 16 you're old enough to pay taxes, you're old enough to raise a family, you're old enough to go to war - so you should be given the vote.

“One of the reason 18 to 21-year-olds are so disengaged from politics is because they get involved a bit too late, leaving it to 18 means there are two years where young people became disengaged from the state.”

Mr Ison, 72, stated he would be “vehemently” against lowering the voting age to 16.

He added: “It was a lot different in 1970 - a lot of 16-year-olds left school and by 18 they had two years experience of the outside world. I don't think that's true any more.”

Did you vote for the first time in 1970 thanks to the reduced voting age? The EDP would like to hear from people who were aged between 18 and 20 in 1970 and voted for the first time in the Holme Hale election of February 1970 or general election of June 1970. Email rob.garratt@archant.co.uk.

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