Friday, August 01, 2008


Are 16 year Olds Ready and Qualified to Vote?

The recent Labour Policy Forum at Warwick added to its portfolio of proposals the recommendation that the vote should be given to 16 year olds. Support from the Electoral Reform Society and the Youth Parliament are fairly predictable, I suppose, but in the past month we have also seen the SNP come out for it as well as Oona King, Peter Hain, Ed Miliband and Harriet Harmon. The suggestion is now on the political agenda and therefore deserves to be considered seriously.

The basic dilemma we face is that democracy is not much good if we don't bother to vote and have little or no respect for the system. It might hang on for a fair number of years, but without both requirements, democracy will eventually atrophy and die. Older people still subscribe to the 'civic duty' of voting with good majorities of over 55s turning out but within the 18-24 cohort only a minority vote. Turnout in age groups between 24 and 55 is also in decline, suggesting that not voting is a 'learnt' activity which young people take into later life. With barely 60% turning out in 2005 and even less in 2001, we do have a problem and which starts and ends with young people.

The case in favour adduces a number of arguments. The Youth Parliament says that if a young person can: pay taxes; pay adult transport fares; get married and have children; and join the army, then they are old enough to vote. They add that with falling participation and turnout, youth involvement would breath new life into democratic politics.

The case against has not been articulated all that well or widely as far as I can make out. The 'entitlement' case is persuasive, though soldiers under 18 are not allowed to fight as far as I understand. If adult responsibilities are demanded by one part of the state, then it follows there is a case for for reciprocal privileges to be allowed by another.

But I'm not sure how far this argument goes. Because someone pays taxes, for example, do we say they can enter state funded higher education? They have the entitlement, of course, but can only do so if they meet certain qualifying conditions.

The same argument can be made about voting. If someone knows little or nothing about voting there seems no point in them exercising such a right. If current trends are continued, non voting will merely be 'learnt' at an earlier age and our system will become less well rather then healthier. We have enough apathetic voters at present, goes the counter argument, so we shouild avoid adding millions more. Such approaches often conclude that improved programmes of political education would attack the fundamental problem far more effectively,

Now I'm aware that many 16 year-olds are better well informed and more politically mature than lots of people who are over 18, but such major judgements have to made based on a calculation, not just of right but of suitability across the whole age group. If there were clear survey evidence that 16 year-olds were overwhelmingly keen to vote- straw polls at 6th form conferences I have organised suggest they might well be- and were sufficiently well informed to cast their vote with some kind of discrimination, then I'd support it. However, the 16 year-olds I have encountered outside the ranks of those actually studying politics, suggest that neither condition would be met across the age group as a whole. I'd love to be proved wrong on this but suspect that somehow I won't be.

The case against, let me have a go...

IF 18-24s don't vote, 16-18 wouldn't. Good. Let's not waste time sending the polling cards.

On average they know little about politics. The 18-24 are bad enough. 16-18 would know even less.

It would be seen as a political move by a sinking Labour party, bearing in mind research show that most of these are left-inclined(naturally enough, they own nothing and are unduly influenced by the leftie education system).

This discussion is part of a bigger problem. The political establishment is alarmed at the low turnout in elections. So they want to make it easier to vote. Hence we have all this garbage about voting at supermarkets and the like. I have another solution. All the people who know nothing about politics and don't care, should be actively encouraged to stay at home. Or in fact anywhere except for the polling stations.
I'm not sure peoiple staying at home will help us. We have to have as many people as possible participating to enable the system to be functional. An alienated minority- or even worse majority- would cause an even more rapid collapse into chaos.
They aren't alienated. They just don't give a toss. There is a difference. If you have a section of the population who know nothing and care even less, the last thing you want them to do is vote. They will only end up voting for TV type figures like Blair and Cameron(or Ant and Dec), "because they have nice hair" or some other such elevated reasoning. Let them wallow in their ignorance and leave me alone.
There was chat about this on Michael White's Guardian blog a couple of days back. The man himself seems in favour of raising the age to 25. I suggested a cut off at about 80 after which the vote should be removed on the grounds that it takes at least a decade for government action to have any real impact. I'm reading a book about some impoverished Indian villagers going on a rail trip around the sub-continent. I've reached the chapter on Delhi and learnt that some of them thought that people wiser than they were should have had more votes than they did. Given that they had to ask the money lender where to put their Xs, in effect, he did.

Not sure how the idea of linking voting to IQ and/or experience and/or knowledge would work and/or be received in Britain - therefore many of the arguments against granting votes to 16 year olds seem to me to collapse. If you're old enough to decide to smoke you're surely old enough to vote for the people who decided that you're old enough to decide to smoke...
Probklemn with introducing a 'test'- as JS Mill suggested a century or more ago- is that current levels of knoweldge and awareness in voters is so low a test for 16 yr olds might call into question the right of huge groups of adults to vote. Sometimes one wonders if this democracy lark is really a workable idea at all!
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