As events in Parliament put an important question on the agenda once more, we asked volunteer writers Josh Arnold and Christabel Stevens to explain the arguments for and against lowering the voting age to sixteen for local and general elections …
Why they shouldn’t have the vote …
Firstly, let’s disperse the classic rumours and stereotypical points that most will use to argue that the voting age should be lowered: starting with the argument that “if you can die for your country, then you should be able to vote to decide the future of your country”. In reality, those under eighteen in the armed services will not face frontline action and can only join the army before they turn eighteen if they have parental permission.
The same goes for those who say that you can get married before you can vote. Once again, you need parental permission to do so. Therefore, if sixteen is to be acknowledged as an age of responsibility, we must first try and understand what ‘responsibility’ means in this context. It is clear from the aforementioned points that in relation to civil duties, the state considers the age of responsibility to be 18.
However, it is not only the state that holds such a view. When the Hansard Society investigated the public’s faith in, and understanding of, our constitution, the only common issue understood by a majority of people that the voting age should be set at eighteen. As a result, we must presume that the public, not just the government (who we often like to blame), who are reluctant to lower the voting age. Obviously the only true way to gauge the public’s view would be in a referendum, but the fact that there have not been calls for one would indicate that there isn’t the widespread desire for such a vote – not even from the age group in question.
There’s also evidence that the majority of young people today simply aren’t interested. What would be the advantage of lowering the voting age? It is common knowledge that 18-24-year olds are consistently the least likely to vote, with only 43% of them turning out in the 2017 General Election. As a result, it is reasonable to believe that lowering the voting age could reduce these figures further, exacerbating a wave of apathy and therefore not leading to democracy being enhanced in any way at all. Lowering the voting age could, in some ways, be detrimental to the British political system as it could offer a gateway for extremist parties to enter the political mainstream. You only need to look as far as the SNP in 2015 to find evidence of how a party saw ‘extending the franchise’ to 16-year-olds as one way of winning a vote on a highly charged issue (Scottish independence, in this case).
From a broader perspective, it may have effects in other areas of society. Re-thinking the ‘age of responsibility’ may lead to discussions about a whole host of new issues, such as the technicalities of taxation and the age of consent. Other limits in society have recently been increased. It is now compulsory for those under the age of eighteen to stay in some form of education. Prior to this change, students could leave school at sixteen. With this in mind, it seems counter-intuitive to move the voting age in the opposite direction .
Ultimately, lowering the voting age would be of no actual benefit to British society as a whole, and were it to happen, it may well damage the already vulnerable British political climate. Not to mention the possibility that it could open up a whole new can of worms: one which many 16-year olds would not like the contents of.
Why we should let them vote …
Earlier this month, Labour MPs proposed a bill that would see the UK voting age lowered to 16. Almost immediately, the Tories quashed the debate in a shrewd political move known as a ‘filibuster’, and the bill did not pass. Certain political columnists suggested this was because the Tory party felt that 16-18 year-olds would be in favour of left-wing policy, and as a result felt threatened enough to push it out of the House of Commons. Despite the bill’s failure to pass, the discussion reignited an ongoing debate: are 16-year-olds mature enough to be given the vote?
Now, you may initially feel that giving the latte-obsessed, Snapchat-happy, meme-loving generation a say in the country’s future is the worst idea since The Giant Pop-Up Book of Phobias. But consider this instead: why on earth would we want to discourage our teenagers from getting involved in politics by denying them any form of democratic expression until their 18th birthday? Teens today are smart, media-savvy and (thanks to the ubiquity of social media) more conscious of wider issues than ever before. Many are activists, bloggers, carers, writers, YouTubers, gamers or volunteers. Most are studying for their GCSEs and engaging in extra-curricular activities. Many also have part-time jobs. It is a lazy stereotype to see 16-year-olds as selfie-fixated, sneaker-collecting layabouts. Also, being no stranger to the occasional Snapchat filter myself, I fail to see why narcissistic frivolity and valid political opinions have to be mutually exclusive.
Malala Yousafzai was just 16 when she gave a rousing speech to the UN calling for greater access to education. Okay – Nobel prize notwithstanding -Malala was hardly your average teen, but surely this demonstrates that 16-year-olds are perfectly capable of informed thought, and if nurtured in the correct environment, are able to offer input of incredible value to debates on the world stage.
In my opinion, it is a huge mistake to exclude young people from the process of decision-making in a country they not only inhabit, but are due to inherit. And it does them a grave disservice to assume that they don’t have the interest or mental capacity to engage with the world around them.
Some might argue that young people are vulnerable to radicalisation from extremist parties including far-right hate groups and advocates of unworkable, loony liberalism. I would suggest that if you are vulnerable to this at 16, you will be vulnerable to this at 18. To enjoy a true democracy, the swaying of impressionable citizens is a risk we have to run.
The very word ‘politics’ might be a turn-off for teens, with its connotations of droning old men, dour news bulletins and plummy-voiced Eton alumni, but whose fault might that be? It’s not young people’s fault that we have allowed power in this country to remain in the hands of a certain few. British politicians are overwhelmingly white, upper-middle class, middle-aged and male. To the average teen in Britain today, there is very little there to identify with. However, we only need to unpick the word ‘politics’ slightly to see that it is teeming with issues that have a huge impact on the young: Education? Healthcare? The arts? How about the taxes they will very soon be paying for the rest of their lives? Ask a teen if they care about politics and they answer may well be ‘nah’, but ask them if they think it’s fair that it’s going to be far more difficult for them to ever own a home than it was for their parents, and I can guarantee you will get a different answer. After all, teens are finely tuned to the small injustices of the world, and are quick to cry out that well-worn phrase: “Life’s not fair!”
They aren’t wrong about that. Get them involved in politics at a younger age, and perhaps they can give us a little help with making life fairer. I for one would welcome a few fresh young faces in a system that has more than a bit of dust on it.
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