Votes at Sixteen?

At Prime Minister's Question Time this lunchtime, Gordon Brown expressed his support for the idea of lowering the voting age to 16. This idea has been gaining quite a bit of traction on the Left, supposedly as a way of encouraging young people to "participate in the democratic process" (i.e. make a mark on a piece of paper once every four or five years). The theory goes that very few 18-24 year olds bother to vote - which is bad news for the long-term viability of the political system, according to some - and that lowering the voting age would get them into the "habit of voting" before it's too late. Knowing this government, though, it would be amazing if there weren't some ulterior motive, namely a belief (justified or not) that younger teenagers would be more likely to vote Labour (though not perhaps in Scotland, where the policy is very popular with the SNP). It's another straw to clutch at, after all, as they go down to an undoubtedly massive defeat.

But what of the idea itself? The "habit of voting" argument we can safely dismiss. It's entirely bogus: doubtless the first sixteen year-olds to get the vote would troop to the polling stations to celebrate their historic enfranchisement, before returning home again to do their homework. But it would pall very quickly. Without an interest in politics, and without an understanding of why the vote was relevant to their lives, many would see little point in voting. Indeed, if the habit of voting can be acquired young, so can the habit of cynicism. Handing the vote to 16- and 17-year olds in the hope that their gratitude would inspire a lifelong interest in politics comes from the same stable of pre-equine carriage placement as the suggestion that if voting in general elections were made as easy as voting in Big Brother then people would take it more seriously. It is, of course, precisely because voting in TV reality shows doesn't matter that it is so easy, and that anyone, of whatever age, is allowed to do it.

Whatever it is that causes low election turnout - a sense of powerlessness and futility, disgust with politics in general or with the range of candidates on offer, apathy, ignorance, or a positive decision to abstain - isn't going to be cured purely by extending the franchise, or by making voting easier. It may even have the opposite effect, by adding to the sense that voting is a trivial matter. Voting turnout, per se, is not important; it does not usually affect the result, and an MP elected on a 30% turnout is as validly elected as one returned by an absolute majority of those eligible. But low turnout does point towards deeper problems of legitimacy. If people aren't bothering to vote, because they feel disenfranchised in more significant ways (and democratic participation is about much more than simply voting, which is a largely passive activity), then this is rightly worrying to politicians. Apart from anything else, it makes it more difficult for them to justify their rule over us. But ensuring that more people cast their ballots will not repair the democratic deficit. If nothing else changes, it will merely fuel the complacency of the political elite.

The vote, at base, expresses the social contract. Formally, it is the people's choice: the voting booth is the place where democracy is made real, since at that moment the politician is at the mercy of his or her electors. But voting - even for the opposition - is an expression of acquiescence, a gift of power bestowed by the voter on the politician and a validation of the system as a whole. The history of the British franchise is one of protracted incorporation, of a political structure maintaining itself by permitting formerly excluded groups to join in. It was Disraeli who saw this most clearly, which is why it was a Conservative government that oversaw the 19th century's most radical extension of the vote in 1867.

But the vote is other things, too, which is why the proposal to admit 16 year olds is rather paradoxical. When the franchise was more restricted, being of age (in those days 21) was only one of several conditions for having a vote. Another was, of course, being male; and a further one was owning property (and, if you go back before 1832, having the correct property qualification or status for the borough in which you happened to be living). Now it is a question of age and nationality, that is all. It has therefore, by default, become a marker of adulthood. Are 16 year-olds "adult"? In some ways, yes. The age of physical maturity has advanced, and with it, in many cases, maturity of mind. There's no reason to suppose that most 16-year olds (and indeed many 12-year olds) are incapable of understanding the issues. A couple of years ago on her blog, Mary Beard imagined a future world "which derided our twenty-first-century 'folly' in depriving a clever nine-year-old of her citizenly rights, while driving the frail 95 year-old to the polling station to put her cross by whoever happened to take her fancy on the morning". But in other ways, at sixteen many youngsters are much less "adult" than they were even a generation ago.

That's certainly the message that is coming from the government. New restrictions on the freedom and capacity of teenagers have been brought in continually under New Labour. The age at which it is legal to purchase cigarettes, knives or fireworks has been raised from 16 to 18, as has the age at which one can obtain a licence for such firearms as are still legal for anyone. The age for purchasing alcohol is still 18, but there's a growing campaign in some quarters for Britain to follow the repugnant American policy of raising it to 21 - and, in any case, the severity with which the law is now being enforced has effectively raised it, in practice if not in theory.

And this legal extension of juvenile incapacity in many areas has gone along with an ever more protracted adolescence. By the time they reached the voting age of 21, many people in the past would have experienced several years effective social adulthood. Leaving school at fifteen or sixteen, they would have been working, paying taxes, and, in many cases, marrying and starting a family (and, provided it was done in that order, with less disquiet about teen pregnancy than would be caused today). Many died for their country before reaching the age at which they could vote for its government. Today, it is expected that young people remain financially dependent at least until they finish university at 22 or thereabouts. The government that is contemplating a reduction in the voting age is also in the process of raising the school leaving age to eighteen. So whereas in the past many 16 year-olds had no say over the politicians who were deciding their tax rates, in the future they may have a say, but have much less moral claim to it than their predecessors. A paradox indeed. But is a quinquennial ballot really much compensation for the loss of the independence and trust they once enjoyed? Or, to put it another way, if adolescents can be trusted with a vote, why should they not be trusted with a penknife?


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