There will be a general election before 2019 is out, but one group, probably those that should have their say more than most, will miss out on the vote.
On October 28th Brendan O’Neill, Editor of Sp!ked, wrote a piece about why ‘Votes for 16-year-olds is a completely undemocratic idea’. He writes that, ‘Votes for 16s is, quite possibly, the most … anti-democratic idea in Britain right now’. This is a questionable statement in a world where our own Prime Minister is engaging in anti-democratic manoeuvres, but enough of the BJ in No10, let’s examine the questionable article.
One of the accusations made by O’Neill is that the campaign for child suffrage is an example of, ‘Generational Gerrymandering’. For those unaware, gerrymandering, ‘is a practice intended to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group’, in this case it is applied to the belief that 16-year-olds are being used for political gain by the left. Whilst this may hold some truth, it is not unique to the left and is not new in politics.
Cast your minds back to the Brexit vote just a few years ago. Through software working-class and elderly voters were targeted and gerrymandered, by the Leave campaign who tapped into their Conservative values. On the other hand, in his book Democracy and its Crisis A.C. Grayling touches on the fact that the exclusion of under-18s and EU citizens in the UK was also an example of gerrymandering:
‘The referendum franchise excluded … 16- and 17-year-olds, expatriate British citizens who had lived abroad for more than a certain number of years, and EU citizens resident in the UK and paying their taxes there. It would seem obvious that all three groups should have been included as having the most material interest in the outcome of the vote’.
At its heart O’Neill’s article is based on three assumptions:
1) Young people only vote for the left
This is semi-correct. It is true that most young people vote for left-wing/liberal parties. They believe in sharing wealth, changing the status quo, rebelling. Its why Jeremy Corbyn, even at the age of 70 appeals; it’s because he is a lifelong rebel.
Yet, this is not to say all young people would vote for the left. This prevention of child suffrage likewise denies right-wing-leaning young people the right to vote too.
2) It would result in an unfair swing in an election
This is both a hope for the left-wing/liberal parties and a worry for the right. However, in recent times their impact hasn’t been that large. During the Scottish Independence Referendum only 2.7 per cent of the 3.6 million votes were from people aged 16-17.
I don’t believe that a lowered voting age would have as big an impact as anticipated in a general election. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and the SNP all have very capable youth wings who would command a not unequal spread of the youth vote.
3) Young people would, ‘undermine the seriousness of the vote’
O’Neill speaks of the ‘incompatibility of the teenage mindset with the cool, rational task of casting a vote’ — basically saying that they would vote on the basis of emotion rather than with reason. Who’s to say that most adults do not do the same?
There is nothing to say that 26, 36, 46 etc., year-old voters have any more maturity than 16-year-olds. Yes, they have more life experience that informs their vote, but that does not mean they do not tend towards binary moralism themselves. Referendum and election campaigns tap into that binary nature. They simplify political messages and voting is often as much an emotionally-driven act as it is a moral and rational one. The key is not your age but how well informed you are.
But why do I support the Vote for 16-year-olds? Two reasons:
Sixteen-year-olds are far better informed about politics than when I was 16 back in 2012. This is because there is now far greater emphasis on political education with more programmes — such as Shout Out UK’s Political Literacy course — springing up.
Furthermore, in recent times, the actions of young activists such as Greta Thunberg, have been a catalyst to youth engagement in politics. The environmental movement has forced young people to look beyond their own bubble of existence at the wider world and the consequences that emerge from careless mass actions.
Whose future is it anyway?
The most prominent argument for lowering the voting age is that since it is their future that is being voted on, young people should have a say. This is not to imply that older voters shouldn’t have a say too, or that there should be a maximum voting age; but in the longer term, a general election could have a greater impact on someone who is 16 as opposed to a person who is already 76.
Are there any solutions?
In the House, the vote for 16-year-olds has support from SNP representative Ian Blackford and Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson. Both firmly believe that it should occur. But what about implementation? There are two solutions to that.
In 2014 William Hall put forward the theory of a Proxy-Claim vote whereby: ‘all citizens are granted a right to vote at birth that is exercised by a parent or guardian proxy until such a time as it is claimed by the child registering to vote’
There’s also Francis Schrag’s suggestion of a fitness test. If a child of a certain age wished to vote, then they would have to pass a test to prove that they understand the political system and the different ideologies of that system.
So, what’s next?
Well, with Boris Johnson stating that he will cancel the election plan if MPs amend the bill to include 16- and 17-year-olds or EU Nationals in the vote, the whole situation hangs in the balance.
Personally, I think we live in a world where we can now trust 16- and 17-year-olds to vote sensibly. At least, they can certainly be trusted more than some of the MPs in Parliament right now.