Democracy is not child’s play

British ministers want to extend the vote to 16-year-olds, in the forlorn hope that a youthful turnout will gloss over the crisis in adult politics and democracy.

New Labour’s drive to increase political participation has once again turned the spotlight on 16-year-olds. Harriet Harman, minister for justice and Labour’s deputy leader, has joined the chorus of participation evangelists in favour of giving juveniles the ‘opportunity’ to vote. Why? Because she wants to see teenagers ‘coming straight out of the citizenship class into the polling station’ (1). However, despite the elite’s fiddling with the process of politics, the fact is that British politics is still bereft of inspiring ideas.

Some leading New Labour figures have recently spoken out in favour of extending the vote to 16-year-olds, including three other candidates in the deputy leadership contest won by Harman: Hilary Benn, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs; Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham in East London; and Peter Hain, secretary of state for work and pensions and secretary of state for Wales. Yet there is no mob of teenagers demanding the right to vote. This idea has emerged from within the corridors of parliament.

The discussion here is not really about whether 16-year-olds should be reclassified as adults and allowed to partake in lively political debate. Instead, the proposal to extend the vote to teenagers is a cynical attempt to increase voter turnout – and it’s not the first time this idea has been floated. In 2006, the Power Inquiry aimed to ‘investigate why there has been a decline in participation in formal politics and to make proposals to reverse this trend’ (2). It stated that we must combat ‘a feeling that there is no choice despite our living in the era when choice is the dominant political mantra’ (3). The lengthy report ended in a recommendation that the voting and candidacy age should be reduced from 18 to 16 - as though 16-year-olds will be able to identify a political choice that the rest of us have missed.

Julie Morgan, Labour MP for Cardiff North and a long-standing advocate of voting rights for 16-year-olds, is more explicit when she argues that extending the vote will help ‘tackle our woefully low voter turnout’ (4). In a white paper last September, even UK prime minister Gordon Brown proposed a whole conference dedicated to discussing giving 16-year-olds the vote, against the backdrop of a decline in voter turnout (5).

Politicians hope to make voting habitual by giving 16-year-olds the vote in parallel with telling students it is their duty to vote in citizenship classes, which are compulsory for 11- to 16-year-olds. Julie Morgan tabled an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons in December 2007 to lower the voting age to 16, stating that it ‘is the next logical extension for citizenship education’ (6).

Whether this will work remains unclear, and strategies to look into ‘how young people can be encouraged to go out and vote when the voting age is lowered’ (7) are being developed by the Votes at 16 campaigning group, alongside various attempts to ‘prove’ that 16-year-olds really do want the right to vote.

Far from wanting young people truly to engage with political ideas, politicians who support extending the vote are trying to short-circuit the process of democratic engagement by getting teenagers to cast a vote almost without thinking. So voting is elevated as a duty with little emphasis on the importance of being persuaded by a political party. This is the ‘drastic action’ that Harman talks about, to tackle low levels of engagement (8). Even the UK Youth Parliament, which supports lowering the voting age and claims to provide ‘opportunities for 11-to-18-year-olds to use their voice in creative ways to bring about social change’ (9), appears less concerned with providing bright young people the opportunity to weigh into political debate than with increasing participation in elections (10).

In obsessing over including young people in elections, politicians reveal their inability to make politics interesting enough for adults. They are effectively writing off the self-interested, working and active part of the population (the adult electorate) in favour of coaxing the kids to come out and play. Bereft of ideas, and unable and unwilling to enthuse the adult decision-making population, the government is instead trying to co-opt more wide-eyed youth.

When arguing for a lower voting age, politicians are, in fact, changing the meaning of voting itself; they are turning it from a democratic right to have control over the direction of our society into a responsibility for maintaining democracy. As Harman has pointed out, ‘there’s a democratic imperative to increase turnout because democracy lacks legitimacy if there’s a dwindling number of people participating in it’ (11). This is why politicians are hoping that young people can be trained to vote ritualistically. The problem is that by recasting the importance of voting as something we should do rather than choose to do, the legitimacy of government will continue to be superficial. This is a desperate and cynical attempt to reinvigorate democracy that will end up undermining and degrading it even further.

Politicians have emphasised process without considering content, as Morgan indicates in her comment: ‘People who usually vote when young usually continue the habit for the rest of their lives.’ (12) Habit? Is that how politicians see voting? This reduces voting, an integral part of democracy, to a school lesson in which the point is, literally, to tick a box. Far from raising 16-year-olds to a serious political and adult level, giving them the vote will degrade adults and the adult political sphere to the level of children. More importantly, the next generation will come to see voting - and politics in general - as a meaningless chore. Is that really a lesson we want young people to learn?

Suzy Dean is a member of the Manifesto Club and freelance writer based in London.

Previously on spiked

Suzy Dean wanted to bring down Coercive Participation. Angus Kennedy said the government’s obsession with petitions reveals a a shrunken view of democracy. Jennie Bristow said we shouldn’t fret about youth apathy, and argued that, when it comes to voter turnout, size isn’t everything. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

(1) Children of 16 may be given the vote, Daily Telegraph, 12 January 2008

(2) Power to the People: the report of Power, an
Independent Inquiry into Britain’s Democracy
(pdf), Isobel White, 14 March 2006

(3) Power to the People: the report of Power, an
Independent Inquiry into Britain’s Democracy
(pdf), Isobel White, 14 March 2006

(4) Let 16-year-olds vote, says Welsh MP, icWales.co.uk, 5 December 2007

(5) See Speakers Conferences (pdf) on the Parliament website

(6) See Early Day Motion on the Parliament website

(7) See Votes at 16 gains momentum, the Youth Parliament website

(8) Children of 16 may be given the vote, Daily Telegraph, 12 January 2008

(9) See the Youth Parliament website

(10) See Votes at 16, the Youth Parliament website

(11) Children of 16 may be given the vote, Daily Telegraph, 12 January 2008

(12) Let 16-year-olds vote, says Welsh MP, icWales.co.uk, 5 December 2007

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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