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
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “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”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses