Movement towards reforming the voting age seems inevitable. Photo: Getty
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The policy few people want remains irresistible: lowering the voting age

Lowering the voting age should have been consigned to the political junkyard, so why is it still gathering momentum?

These are extracts of a chapter from a new book out last week, Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford. The chapter is called "The policy few people want remains irresistible: lowering the voting age" and is written by Andrew Russell.

. . .

The voting age is one of the few elements of the constitution that most voters know and support. The Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement shows better knowledge of the voting age than any other aspect of political awareness. Electoral Commission surveys have found the public firmly against lowering the voting age, with even a small majority of the principal beneficiaries – those aged 15 to 18 – against it. The YCC reported similar levels of hostility from the public and only lukewarm support among those aged 16 to 17. A 2013 YouGov survey revealed that 60 per cent of the public are still against lowering the voting age.

Yet the movement towards reform seems irresistible. The Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens and now Labour have all moved to support votes at sixteen. There have been several attempts to bring laws to reduce the voting age in Westminster and the enfranchisement of 16- and 17-year-olds in the Scottish Independence Referendum makes further reform likely.

. . .

But if you think there is a raft of rights gained at 16 making an overwhelming case for enfranchisement, think again.

Lord Adonis recently repeated many of the most familiar claims: "Given that 16-year-olds are judged old enough to leave home, to marry, to lead an independent life, and even join the Army, it is hard to argue in the modern age that they shouldn’t also have the vote". However, a rudimentary fact check shows that each of Lord Adonis’s claims is fallacious.

Very few 16- and 17-year-olds leave home nowadays (ONS figures show more than 90 per cent of them lived with parents in 2012) and those that do must rely on someone aged 18 or over to sign a tenancy agreement for them.

According to the latest official figures, 92 per cent of 16- to 17-year-olds now stay in education. Furthermore, the English law raising the Participation Age means that from 2015 young people must stay in education or training tied to formal educational qualifications until aged 18, which will further reduce the proportion of eco- nomically active and tax-paying 16- to 17-year-olds.

The "no taxation without representation" mantra is often used in support of votes at 16 but high tax thresholds and poor youth wages mean under one-tenth of under-18s actually earn enough to pay income tax. Anyway, why single out direct taxation? The Boston Tea Party protested about indirect tax; and indirect taxation applies to all consumers whether eight, 12, 16 or 78.

Those under 18 need parental permission to marry in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Moreover the number of young marriages has fallen dramatically over 50 years. In England and Wales in 1959 there were 184 weddings of boys, and 3,973 marriages involving girls, aged sixteen. In 2009, there were just 18 weddings of boys, and 88 of girls aged 16.

The Protocol of the UN Convention of the Human Rights of the Child means armed forces volunteers are kept out of active service until 18. Recruitment at 16 (but only with parental permission) continues but this seems a very good argument for raising the age for enlisting rather than lowering the voting age.

. . .

Perhaps the political class sees the possibility of electoral advantage? Harold Wilson’s government felt that reducing the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1969 would benefit them – unless young Scots turned to the SNP. Maybe it’s difficult to deny the claims of an organised and connected set of people who are continually said to be the future of the parties themselves. The Votes@16 coalition is certainly engaged but as the YCC concluded they might not accurately represent the constituency they speak for – the distance between the views of engaged and disengaged youth is enormous and growing.

The process of lowering the voting age is hard to stop once it has begun. Public opinion, international experiments and a move to enshrine 18 as the age of adulthood ought to have consigned the idea of lowering the voting age to the political junkyard but yet it is still gathering momentum. It may happen because it’s cheap, looks radical and encouraged by some organisations poised to benefit from the change.

Andrew Russell is professor of politics at the University of Manchester. Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box was published by Biteback Publishing last week. Buy it here.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.