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.

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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.

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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 TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.