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.

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