Monday, 26 August 2013

Compulsory voting, or why teenagers can't be trusted to abstain

A left-leaning think-tank, the IPPR, has a hare-brained scheme to fix (sorry, ambiguous: mend) British politics: compulsory voting for teenagers. It wants first-time voters (but only first-time voters, apparently) to face a fine if they decline to turn up to the polling booth. In a concession to liberalism, however, the newly enfranchised will be allowed to put their cross next to a "none of the above" box. Thus will young citizens learn their civic duty. "It could well help to reinvigorate democracy," suggested one of the report's authors (the report hasn't actually been published yet, but they're hoping for some advance publicity), Sarah Birch.

One can think of less coercive possibilities for attracting young voters. Perhaps - I don't know - the Telegraph might be prevailed upon to print large photos of attractive teenage girls clutching their first ballot papers and jumping for joy. It worked for exam results.

Compulsory voting has long been canvassed by people worried about declining turnout in elections. The disengagement of citizens from the electoral process is widely held to be bad for democracy. It certainly suggests that something is wrong somewhere; but to demand compulsory voting as a fix is implicitly to blame the people, who tend to be derided as apathetic or cynical. That they might have a good deal to be apathetic or cynical about seems scarcely to register with proponents of compulsory voting, who are apt to trot out misty-eyed tales of Chartists and suffragettes - or, worse still, the dead of two world wars who "fought for your freedom". Thus a disinclination to endorse one or other lookalike PPE graduate is less evidence of an unappealing choice as a rank betrayal of one's ancestors. Restricting compulsion to first-timers does at least introduce an element of novelty to the latest proposal.

It's hard to see the IPPR proposal working in practice. Imagine two twenty-three year olds, neither of whom has voted before, but only one of whom was eligible at the time of the previous general election. Should only one face a fine when the law comes in. Hardly fair. Nor is it fair (and can it even be legal?) to make compulsory for one section of the adult population something that is voluntary for everyone else. Implicit in the suggestion, indeed, is almost a contempt for young adults. A contempt that it entirely misplaced.

While it's true that in previous elections under-25s have proved less enthusiastic voters than other sections of society, especially pensioners, this isn't necessarily the result of apathy. It may be a rejection of the model of politics currently practised. Or it may be a perfectly valid recognition that for the majority of younger people party politics, with its overriding attunement to the priorities of "hard-working families", is simply less cogent than it will be later on in their lives. Conventional voting is something they will eventually grow into, like Radio 4. In the meantime, they're more likely to channel what political energy they have into single-issue campaigns - signing an online petition against Page 3, for example.

The IPPR's proposal seems to be linked to the growing push (which may even find its way into Labour's manifesto) for 16 and 17 year olds to be given the vote. This has also been seen, this time by shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan, as "a really good way of reinvigorating politics". There's probably an underlying assumption that young people would be more more likely to back Labour, despite their generally hardline attitudes towards welfare. Khan was also reported to be backing the compulsory first-time voting idea last week.

The two ideas fit together neatly. 16 and 17 year-olds aren't legally adults, after all. Indeed, the age of functional adulthood is ever-longer postponed. A few decades ago, when most 16 year olds worked and most under 25-year olds had started families, a lower voting age would have made more rational sense than it does in an era when half of all 20 year olds are still in full-time education. Allowing - or forcing - teenagers to vote years before most of them have taken on adult responsibilities suggests an undervaluing of the franchise itself. So I was struck by Sarah Birch's rationale:

First-time compulsory voting could well be very effective in engaging young people in politics. There are many other things that young people are required to do, not the least of which is go to school.

This wouldn't apply to those at the older end of the age spectrum, of course, but it does link up logically with the extension of compulsory education to 18. Once the system were up and running, voting would in effect be compulsory between the ages of 16 and 21, years which were once the first stage of adulthood but have become (given the increasing circumscription of the lives of under 16s) the new adolescence. So the obligatory franchise will be not a badge of citizenship but rather a marker of continuing dependence on adult supervision.

The other justification for the IPPR proposal is that it would somehow correct an imbalance in the political process. As lead author Guy Lodge explains,

Unequal turnout matters because it gives older and more affluent voters disproportionate influence at the ballot box. Turnout rates among the young have fallen significantly which means there is less incentive for politicians to pay attention to them.

The idea, of course, is that the high turnout of older people means that politicians target their policies disproportionately towards their interests, protecting pensioners' "perks" such as free bus-passes while hiking up student tuition fees. This is less convincing than it at first appears. For one thing, pensioners' perks are small change when set against the brute facts of demography and an ageing population, which are steadily eroding the income levels from pension funds. Pensioners may be protected at the moment, but all the parties are now suggesting that many of the perks will be scaled back. No amount of enthusiastic voting is effective against a strong political consensus.

More profoundly, while politicians of all the main parties make a big show of pandering to pensioners, politics these days is a young person's game. The main players tend to be in their forties, with ambitious MPs and junior ministers in their thirties or even twenties. Behind them stand legions of special advisers, think tankers and PR gurus, many of whom are fresh out of Oxbridge or the LSE. The object of the game is to escape as soon as possible to a feather-bedded "retirement" of directorships and consultancies.

But hang on a minute. The problem that has been identified is one of young people's reluctance to involve themselves in mainstream democratic politics, even in the minimalist way that is expected of them. The suggestion is that if more young people voted, politicians would be more responsive to young people. Yet there are ever fewer front-rank politicians over the age of fifty. All those elderly voters haven't produced a government in their image. Quite the reverse: the ageism in politics can be ferocious, as Ming Campbell discovered during his brief stint as Lib Dem leader. If a generation of youngish politicians and genuinely young people behind-the-scenes doing much of the political work hasn't done anything to increase voter turnout among the young, one may well wonder why.