The paradox of giving 16 year olds the vote

Why trust adolescents with the vote, if we won't trust them with a penknife?

It looks as though 16 and 17 year olds in Scotland (or at any rate some of them) will be able to vote in the Independence referendum scheduled for 2014.  And if under-18s are allowed to vote on the momentous question of whether Scotland should remain part of the UK or go it alone, it would seem strange not to allow them a voice in the composition of their local council. The former Scottish Secretary Lord Forsyth, who is firmly opposed to the suggestion, thinks it's "inconceivable" that it could just be a one-off.  Is this an idea whose time has come?

There's an attractive case in favour.  It's argued, or at least hoped, that it would increase political engagement among the young, and give an added excitement and immediacy to school civics lessons.  As things stand, turnout among 18-24 year olds is depressingly low. Extending the franchise downwards might just give young people the voting habit early.  It works for smoking, after all.  More seriously, politics has a real effect on the lives of teenagers and is vital for their future; why shouldn't they be entitled to a say in who governs you?  If you're old enough to work, pay taxes, have sex, even get married, what's so special about putting a cross on a ballot paper?

I can empathise. I remember vividly the extreme frustration, as a politically obsessed 17-year-old, of being unable to vote in a general election while people a year older who had less interest in politics got to exercise their democratic right.  It seemed unfair -- but then many things do at that age.  And I still think that many, perhaps most, people that age are quite capable of making political choices.  Walking down to a polling station is a more trivial thing than becoming sexually active, for example, yet society considers 16-year olds emotionally and intellectually capable of that.  Teenagers would naturally have different priorities from older voters, but then students have different priorities from young parents, who in turn have different priorities from pensioners, and a democratic society needs to hear many voices.

It's surely a bit optimistic, though, to imagine that handing the vote to 16- and 17-year olds would automatically inspire in them a lifelong interest in politics.  Doubtless the first batch of young voters would be briefly enthused.  But it wouldn't take long for them to discover that very little had changed, and if the voting habit can be instilled young, so can the habit of cynicism.  Especially as society would continue to make clear to people that age that, vote or no vote, they were certainly not yet adults. 

Indeed, the change would send a confusing message to teenagers.  The vote isn't just a mechanism for choosing politicians: it also has great symbolic and moral significance, as a badge of adulthood, citizenship and full participation in society, which is why the question of votes for prisoners has recently become so controversial.  For many groups in society, the vote was hard won.  Britain's electoral history is one of protracted incorporation, of a political structure maintaining itself by (often reluctantly) permitting formerly excluded groups to join in. 

When the franchise was more restricted, being of age (in those days 21) was only one of several conditions a voter had to satisfy.  Another was, of course, being male; and a further one, well into the 20th century, was owning property.  Only when women were given the right to vote on the same basis as men could they begin to take their place as full citizens.  Now that the franchise is merely a question of age and nationality, it has become, by default, a marker of adulthood.  Are 16 year-olds "adult"? In some ways, yes. The age of physical maturity has advanced in recent decades, and with it, in many cases, maturity of mind.  The Internet has brought young people (who are at home there in a way that their parents can never be) more knowledge of the world, and a greater sense of participation in it. 

But in other ways, at sixteen young people are less "adult" than they were even a generation ago.  New restrictions on the freedom and capacity of teenagers have been brought into law continually over the last decade and a half, along with a much greater sense that under 18s need society's protection, not just from sexual exploitation but also from themselves. 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 to possess. It's less common than it was to see a 17 year old behind the wheel of a car.  A growing number of campaigners -- ironically, many of them in Scotland -- would like to see the legal age for purchasing alcohol raised to as high as 21, as it is in the United States.  Such a move is advocated for purely paternalistic health reasons.  That with adulthood comes responsibility and freedom, including the freedom to make bad choices, is no longer an unquestioned assumption.

It's not just the law that gives 16 and 17-year-olds fewer rights and responsibilities than they used to have.  By the time they reached the original 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 there is today). Many boys died for their country before reaching the age at which they could vote for its government. 

The last government, by contrast, began the process of raising the legal school leaving age to 18.  A further three or four years of formal education, once rare, is becoming expected, and  as a result young people are financially dependent on their parents for far longer than ever before.   This is almost becoming a matter of policy.  David Cameron defends his latest money-saving proposal, to all but disbar under 25 year olds from receiving Housing Benefit, on the basis that they should be living at home with their parents. 

In such a context, offering 16 year olds the "adult" responsibility of voting looks patronising at best.  At worst, it looks like a devaluing of the whole idea of the vote.  As a matter of principle, excluding younger, economically active taxpayers people from the rights and responsibilities of citizenship is less defensible than excluding those who are playing much less part in adult society.  A paradox indeed. But is a vote every five years 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 shouldn't they be trusted with a penknife?

A young voter. Photograph: Getty Images
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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.