Is giving under-18s their fair say a good idea, or would it distract from a bigger problem?by Oliver Sidorczuk, Claire Fox / April 23, 2015 / Leave a comment
Should we lower the voting age to 16?
Oliver Sidorczuk—Director at Bite the Ballot
Votes for 16 and 17 year olds across the United Kingdom, for all elections and referendums, transformed from an “if” to a “when” issue on 15th October 2012 when David Cameron and Alex Salmond signed the Edinburgh Agreement.
This agreement enabled around 100,000 under-18s to have their say in the first official contest where the franchise had been reduced to 16: the Scottish independence referendum. And less excitingly, though they’ve been historically opposed to the idea, Conservatives in the UK government also recently legislated to empower the Welsh assembly to determine whether 16 and 17 year olds should have the right to vote in an income tax referendum. Not exactly a cause close to many teenagers’ hearts, but a significant milestone nonetheless.
This movement towards votes at 16 is important, and perhaps vital, to the future survival of UK democracy. It’s also fair, not least because the government is quite happy to allow the 1.5m 16-17 year olds denied the vote to get married and pay national insurance and tax. Locking these people out of the decision-making processes that determine their future isn’t just patronising, it’s illogical. Are we expecting them to wake up on their 18th birthday and shoot off a voter registration application?
However, the organisation I work for, Bite the Ballot—which encourages youth participation in politics—attaches two important conditions. Yes, let’s lower the voting age, but—and it’s an important but—if it isn’t accompanied by active, empowering citizenship education, and voter registration in schools and colleges, then votes at 16 will never be the runaway success that they can be. Let’s get these policies right. Let’s empower every young person with the knowledge to make informed decisions at the ballot box. And let’s give them the opportunity to spark their democratic journey by registering to vote in school. Then, and only then, will we see record youth turnout of 16-24 year olds in all elections.
Claire Fox—Director of the Institute of Ideas
The key question for me is: why has the demand for votes for 16 year olds become so popular among policy pundits and politicians? There is not a mass movement of teenagers demanding the right to vote; it is a top-down idea. It seems a desperate attempt to court, even manipulate, a generational demographic whose very age makes them dependent on state institutions.
Why am I cynical? You’ve cited the familiar fairness point as “illogical”: because 16-17 year olds can have children, get married, pay national insurance and tax, they should not be locked out of “the decision-making processes…” Logically, those politicians who talk-up votes for 16 year olds should view teenagers as young adults capable of making decisions for themselves. Yet the opposite is the case, with a swathe of infantilising all-party political initiatives that make the young even more dependent on adults. The minimum school-leaving age has recently risen to 18, as has the legal age for buying cigarettes and alcohol. Try being 16 and drinking in the pub, and see whether adult society thinks the young are responsible. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UK’s Children Act both define a child as a person under 18. Hence safeguarding rules treat 16 and 17 year olds as vulnerable to “child abuse.” Meanwhile those champions of youth empowerment, the Scottish National Party, have introduced the children and young people’s bill which gives all “children” a state guardian until the age of 18, at the same time as letting them vote. If young people are treated as in constant need of state hand-holding and protection, extending the franchise hardly suggests a broader confidence in 16 year olds as capable of the adult responsibility of deciding who runs the country.
Indeed one of your important conditions encapsulates my concerns. You favour lowering the voting age only if it’s combined with “active, empowering citizenship education.” This is the opposite of independence. And if you think young voters need prior lessons by responsible grown-ups, surely this implies you don’t actually trust their maturity at the ballot box? Who’s patronising now?
Young people rely on adults. Of course they do: for much of their lives, under-18s depend on parents, carers, guardians, doctors, teachers, counsellors. But if you’re saying it’s “infantilising” to educate, care and support young people, that it’s somehow curtailing a young adult’s “independence” to demand they receive proper civic education, you’re wrong. You argue that it’s akin to “hand-holding” to safeguard and protect young people from abuse, right up until 18. That’s not patronising, it’s offensive.
In fact, those last two points perfectly encapsulate why 16 and 17 year-olds deserve a say over which policies stand a chance at becoming law. Is it right that the state intervenes to protect and improve vulnerable young people’s lives? Absolutely. And is it right that those young people—whose lives are directly impacted by such safeguarding—are able to help decide who ends up writing such laws? Unquestionably.
But let’s look at the bigger picture too. The UK has an ageing population and (as we’ll witness every day for the rest of the campaign) politicians are openly bribing the silver vote, assuming that the youth vote is both shrinking and apathetic.
So what this debate boils down to is priorities—not an academic deliberation about the cultural or biological advent of adulthood. The key question for me (and, as it happens, the manifesto writers) is “who’s it easier to let down?” Those who are registered and who vote; or those who can’t? Just compare “triple-locked” pension to trebled tuition fees. It’s clear who sways the current crop of law-makers.
Politicians write policies for people who vote. And giving the vote to 16 and 17 year olds is about engaging and empowering future generations, giving them the tools and responsibility to reward and punish decision-makers. Pushing for democracy education alongside votes at 16 isn’t patronising; it’s indispensable. After five years working in schools across the UK, we know how poor current provision is. That’s why we’re confident of recommending it as a compulsory subject.
Do you think 16 year olds are independent adults or not? This isn’t an “academic deliberation”; more a point of principle about voting as a grown-up act. Adulthood is a distinct break when you take responsibility for yourself. I’m noting a contradiction: you defend teenagers’ reliance on a growing array of adults, then demand those same teenagers should be treated as self-reliant adults at the ballot box. I stress the importance of independence not to query the competence of the young, but to avoid degrading the meaning of voting—ideally a democratic right, exercised by autonomous, independent citizens, not an extracurricular extension of civics lessons.
I’m also not convinced the young should be given the right to vote because they “deserve a say” in laws that “directly impact” them. This could result in a sectional, even narcissistic, approach to politics, implying that youth engage only with “yoof” issues. I’d rather encourage teenagers—whether voting or not—to see beyond their age cohort and be equally interested in dementia, Syria, immigration and the eurozone.
On your “bigger picture”: pitting the so-called “jilted generation” against baby boomers seems destructively divisive. Indeed, understanding social problems through the concept of generations can be misguided. Ed Miliband may opportunistically try to court the youth cohort by denouncing tuition fees as the “betrayal of an entire generation.” But “generation youth” isn’t a homogenous stage army who can be assumed to share the same opinions because they accidently share the same demographic. The organisation I run, the Institute of Ideas, runs the Debating Matters competition for sixth formers; reassuringly, among any group of 16 year olds you’ll hear arguments that are conservative, radical, passionately diverse. Shock horror, some even agree with tuition fees because they’ve looked beyond the sound bites and realise it’s a complex issue.
Finally, if political parties are failing to inspire those young 18+ adults who can vote, perhaps expanding the franchise is a distraction from a much deeper problem?
I’m in favour of inspiring people by giving them the knowledge they need to make informed political decisions; people who (shock horror) may rely on others for things like housing, care or food. People aged 65—or people who have just turned 16. I suggest 16 and 17 year olds deserve a say in elections because expanding the franchise will force parties to sit up and seek to solve the urgent needs of younger voters. If you think this degrades voting, I’m keen to hear how you’d make the current crop of short-sighted politicians acknowledge, listen and then act on younger citizens’ crucial concerns.
Your worry that votes at 16 risks making politics “sectional” is bizarre, because that’s clearly already the case. Our democracy is steered by a pale, male and stale elite doing everything in its power to butter up and bribe older voters. This has turned politics into a disgustingly one-sided battle. Just look at the risible love-in we’re witnessing as every politician, of every persuasion, panders to the silver vote.
The reason is obvious. In 2010, 76 per cent (of a registered 95 per cent) of over-65s turned out to vote, while 44 per cent (of a registered 56 per cent) of 18 to 24 year olds did the same. This has made young citizens second-class voters. It’s why votes at 16—as part of a series of reforms to engage, educate and inspire voters—is essential in evolving UK democracy for generations to come.
An election is the chance to vote for contesting visions of the future, a choice of differing ideals. The present crop of hollowed out, principle-light political parties offer little meaningful choice. In compensation your “pale, male and stale elite” may well try and “butter up” older voters. But let’s not surrender to the status quo by suggesting they should instead butter up the young. It’s also insulting to assume the “silver vote” is easy to bribe. Their interests aren’t reducible to pensions and savings. Older voters are just as frustrated as you about the lack of choice.
Why are you adamant that “expanding the franchise” is the solution? Those same “short-sighted politicians” are demonstrably failing to enthuse adults who already have the vote. The broader democratic crisis is the chasm between the political elite and the electorate in general, not a wilful abandonment of the young.
Votes for 16 year olds will not save democracy but—I concede—it won’t destroy it either. However, at least give the vote in good faith, on an equal basis. The revolutionary aspect of universal franchise is that every single individual—whether plumber, philosopher, prince—is free and equal at the ballot box. You get dangerously close to betraying this ideal. You support votes at 16—but only if accompanied by citizenship education. This makes 16 year olds literal second-class citizens. Can you imagine the suffragettes accepting such conditions—“my dears, you can have the vote, but only if you go to lessons in democracy.”
My advice to 16 year olds? Aspire to creating a democracy based on big ideas, reject generational chippiness and if anyone offers you the franchise with conditions, vote with your feet.