Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The X-Factor

Since the Scottish referendum allowed 16 and 17 year olds to vote (an age group which includes most Year 11s, FE college students and sixth formers), discussion has ramped up in earnest about extending the franchise to this age group permanently.

Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) launched her own drive on behalf of the Assembly Commission to find out what teenagers think – though it's worth pointing out that she herself supports lowering the voting age.

During the referendum campaign, around 109,000 Scottish 16-17 year olds registered to vote.

Turnout was high across the board and unlike anything we've seen in living memory. It's fairly obvious that because this was such a serious decision on the fate of an entire country reduced to a simple dichotomy of "yes" or "no", turnout was always going to be much higher than it would've been had it been a multi-option referendum or an ordinary election.

In general, under-35s are significantly less likely to vote in ordinary elections than other age groups. According to the BBC, in the 2013 local elections in England, turnout amongst 18-35 year olds was just 32%, compared to 72% for over-65s.

The Arguments For

Under-18s are amongst those most affected by key government policies and legislation,
so surely they should have an influence on deciding who makes those decisions?
(Pic : National Assembly Flickr)
The one most keenly trotted out is that 16 year olds can have sex, pay taxes, get married and can join the armed forces – some even start families - but they can't vote. Within the last century children were leaving school at 14 and working down mines, so surely they'll be mature enough to handle the responsibility of putting an X on a bit of paper. The "maturity" argument against is a bit strange as it's not as if large swathes of the public actually pay attention to, and understand, policies and manifestos, is it?

Specific to Wales, giving 16-17 year olds more say on public policy and public services (by being able to vote) might force policy-makers to take into account the impact of their decisions on the young. Education policies, for example, are almost always formulated from the viewpoint of industry and teachers, and rarely what learners want. The reason young people aren't listened to is because they don't vote, while pensioners – who do very, very well out of politicians – turn out in droves and actually hold politics in some esteem.

There's been a lot of discussion on financial education and physical literacy, so what about civics?

Lowering the voting age could have a positive impact on political education/discussions in schools. I often had to discuss things like that with interested friends and look up topics under my own steam. This often meant I ended up with very kooky ideas (no, not independence) that were never challenged – but that means now that I've matured a bit I can see a bad idea or policy from a mile off. If everyone received a proper political education at a younger age, we could have a electorate that can put controversial topics like immigration in a proper context and develop keen BS detectors.

* Wavy Lines *

Back in 2001, just before the Westminster election, one of the history teachers organised the Bridgend candidates, and the sitting Labour MP, Win Griffiths, to speak to a group of us who were free at the time. The Conservative candidate was from London, the Plaid Cymru candidate was originally from New York and the Lib Dem candidate was a very nice old lady from Porthcawl. Someone was also standing for the Pro-Life Alliance but she didn't turn up.

After they said their bit and left, we were asked who we would vote for if we could. I would say that more than half of the hands that did go up, went up for the Plaid candidate (I'm not joking, and I presume it was partly for the novelty of having an American talk to us, party because more popular members of the year went that way). I opted for the Lib Dem (despite being a self-proclaimed Marxist) along with someone else. And I think two people put their hands up for the Tory and Labour.

The second largest vote was for "None of the Above", and those that did so were given a lecture about people dying for our right to vote etc.

Win Griffiths was re-elected at a canter, while turnout fell 12%. "None of the Above" were clearly in the ascendancy.

* Wavy Lines *

That's the closest thing I received to a political education throughout school.

I'm willing to bet if you asked the same group of people the same question now that we've turned 30-31, the largest group will be "None of the Above" (and nobody would dare lecture them about people dying for the vote), more would support Labour and the Conservatives just for the sake of giving an answer or because of their jobs, two or three would say UKIP, I would probably be the only person backing the Plaid Cymru candidate and nobody would consider the Lib Dems (or wouldn't in public).

That doesn't really tell you anything other than political opinions change over time, and we probably have an entire generation who don't have strong political opinions either way. You could even say that Millennials/Generation Y are becoming "post-political" (I'll have more on this soon).

Votes at 16 might turn things around at a point in a person's life when it's most needed.

Perhaps the most important argument in favour is that it would get young people in the habit of voting in order to combat low election turnouts. I'm not convinced we'll see Scottish referendum turnout levels ever again – any Welsh referendum on income tax powers would be an absolute dud compared to that; even I'm not interested. Unfortunately, the cynicism of younger generations is going to lead to really, really low turnouts as we get older because we've never really engaged in politics and politicians have never really engaged with us.

The Arguments Against

So we're thinking of giving people who aren't deemed old enough to
buy pornography or drive a train the right to help choose the government?
(Pic : via Wikipedia)
You can flip the "16-year-olds can...." argument on its head very easily. 16 year olds might well be able to marry or join the armed forces but they can't do so without parental consent; and in the case of the latter they wouldn't be put in active service, just serve an apprenticeship until they turn 18.

You can't learn to drive until you're 17, and you can't buy alcohol, fireworks or tobacco – or (ironically) stand for election - until you're 18 (and I don't think anyone's seriously suggesting 16 year olds stand for election but, logically-speaking, why not?). Additionally, you can't learn to drive a HGV, bus or train until you're 21 (Independence Minutiae: Legal Ages).

There might even be an argument in there somewhere for raising the voting age, as the brain doesn't develop to the level necessary for fully rational decision-making until age 25. If we deny 16 year olds access to these very fundamental civic responsibilities and rights, why should we give them the power to direct the decision-making of the whole country? We could end up with 16 year olds being able to vote on defence and foreign policies, but not being able to (legally) buy a porn or horror DVD.

And everybody pays tax. Everybody. It's a poor argument to base whether someone should vote on. 7 year olds pay tax (VAT) when they've saved up pocket and birthday money to buy a new toy. So when people say "pay tax", what they're really saying is "pay income tax". Well, many adult low earners don't pay any income tax but they can certainly vote. Rich people who do their best to avoid income tax can buy an election too.

Giving 16-17 year olds the vote might put the future of youth parliamentary organisations at risk. It could be seen as unfair if this age group are fully enfranchised, and on top of that have dedicated parliamentary organisations working for their interests. Parliamentary organisations, and advocates like the Childrens Commissioner, often have far more influence on government decisions than voting ever does.

Votes at 16 is still an arbitrary cut off point too. As someone born in August, I would've found it grating if most of my classmates had a right to vote but I had to wait simply because I'm a few months younger than they are – something that absolutely dogged me throughout my school life.

Giving younger teenagers the vote wouldn't necessarily make them any more interested in politics, and might even have the opposite effect.

Imagine if all these 16-17 year olds voted, and quickly realised "every vote counts" is a load of rubbish. Their vote is actually only one sixty thousandth of a voice in their local constituencies. They'll read all the literature, actively campaign and discuss it all they want, but then they go out and see their favoured candidate fail hard and a donkey get elected by 35% of those who voted, while some party grandee becomes a Lord without an election at all.

Sweet Sixteen?

I'd say I'm in favour mainly because too many big decisions that directly affect 16-17 year olds have been taken on their behalf without their input in the past (notably tuition fees), and it would boost political education in schools. Those things should really outweigh the arguments against.

That's pretty much it, though. It's not a fundamental right that's been cruelly denied. I don't believe it'll do much to drive up voter turnouts either, and I don't see 16-17 year olds becoming any more interested in the Assembly or local politics than they are now.

They'll be more likely to vote on The X-Factor – along with many, many adults. That's the real challenge facing politics, not gimmicks like this.


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