Tag Archives: Democracy

No to Votes at 16

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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.

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The British Perception Problem

A new survey by Ipsos MORI has revealed there is an unsettling gap between what the British public perceives to be true, and the actual state of affairs on a number of key political issues.

When asked about divisive issues such as crime, welfare, government spending and immigration, the public paint a caricature of Britain that is devoid of any resemblance to reality. Britons think crime is rising when it has actually fallen considerably in the past decade. We believe benefits are being claimed fraudulently en-masse when in reality less than 1% of welfare money is done so. On average we believe that foreign-born immigrants account for nearly a third of the population when the actual estimated figure is a more reasonable only 13%.

Equally as worrying as this widespread ignorance is people’s reluctance to accept fact. When those who were seriously off the mark had their claims challenged, their response was to dispute and question the data presented to them. Of those who thought the percentage of immigrants in the UK was 26% or higher, over half said they stated a higher figure as they believe ‘people come into the country illegally so aren’t counted’ by official stats.

These misconceptions are what you’d expect to overhear from the sorts in your local pub that lament the current state of affairs before concluding how that Nigel Farage bloke has got the right idea.

What causes the people of one of the most advanced, liberal democracies to hold views that are so out of touch with reality? Economic uncertainty can be attributed to fuelling these fears but also the sensationalist media should also shoulder some of the blame for creating this caricature of British life.

The top 3 most circulated daily national newspapers in the UK are The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Mirror and all are guilty for their frequent casual snippets of scaremongering and sensationalism. Better still, if you happen to have the pleasure of reading the online versions of these papers on any given article, you’d be forgiven for thinking Britain was a brewing cesspit on the brink of social meltdown with only a few gallant keyboard warriors willing to tell it how it is. The comments section from a Daily Express article regarding the survey is a particularly depressing read.

Sensationalism sells and our print and broadcast media is saturated with tales of the extraordinary so that it has become the ordinary. The results of this survey poses a significant question, how can voters effectively participate in a democracy when they are so misinformed on what they are voting on?

Hetan Stah executive director of the Royal Statistical Society believes the solution comes at three levels. Firstly, politicians need to talk in facts and stats not spin. Secondly, the media has to try and genuinely illuminate issues rather than sensationalising them. And finally schools should teach statistical literacy more.

His suggestions can’t be argued with, we would all like politicians to stop lying, the media to stop sensationalising and people to be more educated and aware, but are they realistic or really helpful suggestions? The most obvious way to enact the first two solutions would be through some form of regulatory legislation. Even the strongest advocate of government intervention should feel uncomfortable about the idea of the state deciding what is or isn’t news. Considering the authoritarian tendencies of governments it is irrational to assume this course of action will be corruption free.

Considering the final suggestion, I am sure it’s true that if people were more educated about statistics, they would probably think twice after reading a headline such as “Mick Philpott, a vile product of Welfare UK.”

But this is all a bit ‘state the obvious’. It isn’t just ‘uneducated masses’ reading tabloid headlines, watching channel 4 documentaries on obscure societal issues or asking the reactionary questions on Question Time. All sections of society fall victim of sensationalism and spin, and the left and the right can be equally as guilty. This is a fundamental flaw in democracy; it is impossible to have an electorate that act rationally with all information available to them.

As Sam Bowman identifies referring to the findings of a political psychology study, “the more information you have about something, the more resistant to new contradictory information you are – or, in other words, the more dogmatically ideological you are.” Just because an individual is highly educated about a subject it does not mean they will use this information in the ‘right’ way.

So if the answer is not more regulation and if more education isn’t going to cause much positive change, how can you solve a problem like the perception gap in British politics? By taking away power from central government that responds to the perception of the electorate is one way. By pursuing greater localism we can have a better politics insofar that people are more aware of issues concerning their local area. Through localism voters can be more educated about issues in their immediate area, and the sensationalism peddled in national newspapers will be marginalised. Local governments would be more responsive and accountable than a central one in Westminster and consequently policy would be tailored to benefit local needs. Instead of pandering to the public mood based on sensationalist headlines, politicians would be responsive to actual facts and stats.

Despite all of this doom and gloom about British perceptions there is a silver lining about the current state of affairs. Even though the survey appears to reveal the average Brit to be a frothing at the mouth bigot, in reality our democracy does function first rate in keeping out the views of the more extreme and reactionary wings of the political spectrum. It’s just that it could do a better job of not rising to it for cheap political gains.

 

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