Ed Miliband has pledged to make 16 year olds “part of our democracy” by lowering the voting age if he wins in 2015. Giving 16 year olds the vote does not improve our democracy and as well the justifications for it are weak – the policy is about populist politics rather than actual empowerment. The case for lowering the voting age to 16 is rarely discussed outside school debating societies and even when it is proposed to young people, the majority don’t want it. Probably because the majority of 16 year olds have greater concerns than choosing how much tax they aren’t going to be paying any time soon or who is responsible for collecting their parent’s rubbish bins.
Many of the populist arguments for lowering the voting age don’t add up. A few justifications from the votesat16.org website are easily undone and the idea that at 16 people are responsible enough to be able to vote is inconsistent with how the state currently views and treats 16 year olds. “You can join the army at 16 and potentially die for your country” is one argument – when in reality, with your parent’s permission, you can go through basic training whilst stationed in Britain.
“The law deems you responsible enough to consent to sex and get married.” This is again economical with the truth as the age of consent is to protect children from abuse rather than indicate a sign of maturity. To get married, like joining the army, requires your parent’s permission.
“16 year olds can leave education, enter work and be taxed.” In reality the law now obliges young people to be in some form of education until they are 17, and this is soon to be upped until they are 18. When the message from the state is to stay in education, the argument about 16 year olds being deemed responsible enough to work and pay tax like say a 30 year old falls apart. True 16 year olds can pay tax, but 15 year olds can also pay NI and IC? Why aren’t there demands for 15 year olds get a vote? How far do you take the tax line as well – anyone that has ever bought anything in their life has at some point paid VAT, so surely by this logic 10 year olds should have a right to vote for a party that would scrap VAT on their favourite sweets. No taxation without representation aye?
Society in many areas views 16 year olds as children – not adults. Granted, most businesses that are designed to suck as much money out of you as possible often determine that you should be charged an adult fare from about 16 or sometimes younger but the rest of society does not. At 16 you’re deemed not adult enough to smoke, drink, fully gamble, drive anything that isn’t a 50cc hairdryer, buy knives, buy fireworks or watch a film with a bit too much red or too many swear words in it. If you are incapable of doing any of these things, then how are you supposedly capable of choosing the leader of one of the most powerful nations in the world? The idea that children are growing up quicker than they used to and the voting age should reflect this is also a fallacy. Today young people are; staying at home with their parents, having children, getting married, entering the job market and paying taxes later than previous generations. There is no justification for granting an entitlement for 16 year olds when their responsibilities are as a whole decreasing.
Whilst voting is a right, it is also an onus entrusted to citizens because they are said to be capable of making an adult decision. Since we do not consider 16 year olds as adults in a number of areas, why should they be considered adult enough to be able to make an informed decision when voting? There will be occasions when you get a well-informed 16 year old politico – albeit one that makes you cringe with their statements in UK Youth Parliament or on Young People’s Question Time, if anything UKYP is justification not to allow votes at 16 – that knows more about politics than someone who is old enough to vote. However, this is not justification to change the law to suit them. The 16 year old may be more informed but this does not mean they have a large enough stake in society to determine how it should be governed.
When I was 16 I was unfortunate enough to follow politics and be interested in it, but I was an exception, not the norm. The majority of 18-24 year olds do not vote, so it is a real stretch of the truth by Labour MP Sadiq Khan to say extending the right to 16 year olds will “reinvigorate politics to get teens involved at a younger age.” Giving 16-17 year olds the vote isn’t going to change the face of British politics nor are they going to be a crucial factor in the results of General Election. What the policy is however is cynical – young people as a whole are less informed and can be manipulated more easily in order to gain their vote. This plays in to the hands of parties that want to dumb down politics and push simplistic agendas to the forefront of debate to gain some support – simplistic agendas such as giving 16 year olds the vote.