Vote, vote, vote for Harry Potter

Observations on votes at 16

If you react with horror to the idea of lowering the voting age to 16, you are certainly not alone. The last reputable survey on the subject found that almost 80 per cent of the electorate was opposed.

The supposed reason for lowering the voting age is to combat declining electoral participation - especially among the young. Everyone agrees that turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds is (and has always been) significantly worse than among older people. Now the solution proposed is to include in the electorate a group whose turnout is likely to be even lower. By any standards, this is bizarre logic. Even the groups lobbying in favour of votes at 16 accept that the change could reduce turnout at the next election.

But, they argue, 16- and 17-year-olds will be socialised into voting and politicians will then have to take young people more seriously. However, you could list a whole series of groups which believe that politicians ignore them - the white working class, ethnic minorities, the poor, disabled people, small business owners, pensioners, even university lecturers - and all of these have the vote.

The "Votes At 16" website is full of examples of the supposed unfairness of the status quo: I can drive a car but not vote; I can join the forces but not vote; I pay my taxes but can't vote; I can get married but not vote - the last accompanied by a picture of a depressed-looking bride whose wedding day has clearly been ruined by the lack of the franchise.

Most of these statements are at best half-truths. You can drive from 17, not 16. You can join the forces from 16, but only with parental consent, and front-line service is avoided until 18, not least because the UK has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines childhood as lasting until 18. People under 18 require parental consent to be married in England and Wales and (perhaps thankfully) vanishingly few do so. In short, society does not view 16-year-olds as fully adult - and denying them the vote is therefore not unfair but the logical consequence of the role they play in society.

Arguments about "no taxation without representation" founder on the high percentage of children who already pay VAT (are those who spend their pocket money on sweets or CDs to be granted the vote on those grounds?) and on the small percentage of 16-year-olds who pay income tax. The last census found that 89 per cent of 16-year-olds and 68 per cent of 17-year-olds were students.

Given that the case for votes at 16 is so muddled and incoherent, why is the government floating the idea? And, much more interestingly, why now?

In July, the Electoral Commission laun-ched a consultation on the age at which you can stand for election (currently 21) as well as on the voting age. It finished in October. Throughout the consultation, the government remained silent. It has chosen to make its views public at the least useful moment - a few weeks before the report is due out in the new year.

The obvious reason is that ministers want to divert our attention from other potential news stories. The Observer of 7 December led on the apparent conversion to votes at 16 of Lord Falconer, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, rather than on his problems with Lords reform; the following morning's Today programme interview with Falconer was similarly distracted.

Votes at 16 also allows the government to look "progressive" - at least to some people - and vaguely "pro-youth", although there is no evidence of any overwhelming demand for the vote among under-18s.

Whatever the Electoral Commission recommends, the government now can't lose. If the commission backs votes at 16, the government looks forward-thinking and ahead of the game. If it recommends no change, the government will have shown itself to be open-minded and consultative, always willing to consider exciting ways of empowering people; the stuffy old bureaucrats at the commission will get the blame for not proceeding.

Philip Cowley lectures in politics at Nottingham University

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