They all help the struggle, brother

Observations on votes at 16

As Sir Humphrey would have said, the decision of the Electoral Commission to reject votes at 16 is brave. It risks yet another clash with the government.

Set up in 2000, the commission was meant to take partisan self-interest out of electoral policy-making. Its report into votes at 16 came after a year-long inquiry and its largest consultation so far. It sent out more than 5,000 copies of a "young person's version" of its consultation paper, with the complicated bits taken out and lots of pictures added. It polled more than 1,000 adults. Asked at what age people should be able to vote, their answer, to two decimal places, was 18.00. Faced with a direct choice between 16 or 18, just 22 per cent went for 16.

Yet a growing number of ministers are said to favour 16. If they get their way, it will not be the first time the commission has been overruled. Ministers rejected its advice over all-postal votes for June's European elections. The commission wanted pilots in just two regions. Ministers insisted on adding the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside, so that the "pilots" now cover half of England, which just happens to be the half that disproportionately votes Labour. There is nothing inherently wrong in the government rejecting advice - that's all it is, after all - but, if it happens every time, people may ask what the point of the commission is.

Why are some ministers so keen on votes at 16? It will add 2,200 potential votes on average in each constituency. In practice, only about 30-35 per cent will use them, but that is still another 800 votes up for grabs. Labour may not get the majority of 16- to 17-year-olds but it will probably get more than will the Conservatives, who are their main challengers in England. As one Labour MP put it: "Will more of the little buggers vote Labour than Tory in my constituency? I think they probably will."

But in Scotland and Wales the challengers are usually the Nationalists, who may gain more of the newly enfranchised voters. In the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections (as in London) the electoral system will reward these parties for every vote they get. I put this to one English Labour MP. Was he prepared to put Labour's wider interests ahead of his own? His reply: "The struggle takes many forms, brother."

Philip Cowley teaches politics at the University of Nottingham