Vote No to baby ballots

Giving parents extra votes wouldn't solve the 'democratic deficit' - but it would damage democracy.

Tiffany Jenkins

Topics Politics

Should children have a greater public voice – the vote, in particular? The answer is a simple no. So why does the think-tank Demos say that they should?

The new Demos pamphlet, Other People’s Children: Why their quality of life is our concern (1), by Gillian Thomas and Gina Hocking, is fuelled by a desire to reverse the democratic deficit, by involving children in public space and decision-making. Demos would like to see voting rights given to all children from the age of 14. For the younger child, the pamphlet proposes giving parents an extra vote per kid that the parents cast on their behalf after consultation. It’s a two-votes-for-the-price-of-a-baby scheme.

The authors’ desire that children should occupy more public space does not result from an aim to treat them as adults. Indeed they explicitly argue that giving children a say should not mean treating them like ‘mini adults’. The attraction of kids is their innocence, inexperience and naivety. Demos has had enough of adults who tell them what they want, know what they are talking about and don’t support their ideas uncritically.

At best this proposal resembles a desperate middle-aged man (or woman) chasing after some pretty young thing, having been knocked back by someone with more sense and experience. After all, it must be flattering, having been ignored by most of the public, to hear children agree that that the planet should be saved (especially the lovely fluffy animals). Far better, in the minds of Thomas and Hocking, to have children participate, who agree with them and don’t make so much of a fuss. (Although I expect they have forgotten what it was like to be spotty and stroppy – this could prove far more troublesome than they imagine.)

The proposals are a step back to a pre-reform voting system. Once people were excluded on the basis of class and sex – now they could be given extra votes on the basis of being a family. So much for the right to an equal say, irrespective of your background or lifestyle. Demos is effectively calling for the end of universal suffrage, in an attempt to prop up an increasingly illegitimate political elite and to grant special privileges to those who have made the approved-of decision to have babies.

In these proposals, people don’t count because they are citizens but because they are mothers and fathers. What happens when other worthy types smiled on by New Labour get extra votes? Are we about to see more votes for those who do voluntary work, teachers, or nurses?

Of course the extra votes for parents come with strings attached – so it’s not even a good deal for parents. When casting the vote, the pamphlet promises, the parents would be told to ‘[t]hink explicitly about the child’s interests’ (2) – about which Demos and like-minded people would be only too happy to instruct them. The additional vote may give parents extra choice, but certainly not free choice. It would be another way of telling parents how to behave responsibly.

Underneath the attempt to go for the youth, get rid of universal suffrage and instruct parents on how to vote, is a broader prejudice expressed by many in the political elite. Thomas and Hocking believe that we get involved in politics only when it appeals to our most immediate interests. The pamphlet argues that ‘[i]f children and young people have a right to have their voices heard in the formulation of policy, the decisions are more likely to reflect their needs and interests’ (3) – as if otherwise, no one would give them a second thought.

The tenor of the report is that we don’t care about the future of children so they should be given a vote. And parents need to be told to cast an extra vote especially for the babies. Yet we can think about our kids without instruction, even think about other people’s children without being told to, and – amazingly enough – think and argue for issues beyond our everyday lives. History is full of people arguing for change for other people, classes, genders and races. Society is full of people who think beyond the everyday.

Targeting people’s immediate interests as a way to get them into politics is narrow, boring and short term. It reduces debate over the future of society to the domestic sphere, as if we are only interested in the price of nappies. If that really were the case, though, why should I be interested in other peoples lives, why should I care about kids if I have none myself? This notion is thoroughly divisive. By seeing the public as tiny separate categories of ‘parent’, ‘teacher’ or ‘nurse’, it loses the recognition of the interests that do bind us together, and that go beyond our everyday lives. Demos and its fellow travellers are not only disconnected from us – they have no clue as to what connects us. They really should get out more.

Margaret Thatcher was once lampooned for saying ‘There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families’. Now Demos has taken up her banner, privileging children and bribing parents for the sake of a few votes. It’s a pretty grim report.

Children may be the future, as the authors banally point out, but adults are the people who decide the direction. It is adults that those in politics have to convince equally – no matter what our domestic situation is – about their vision for the future. And I would hope that this vision has more life to it than everyday living.

Tiffany Jenkins is arts and society director at the Institute of Ideas

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

(1) Other People’s Children: Why their quality of life is our concern, Gillian Thomas and Gina Hocking, Demos, 2003

(2) Other People’s Children: Why their quality of life is our concern, Gillian Thomas and Gina Hocking, Demos, 2003, p81

(3) Other People’s Children: Why their quality of life is our concern, Gillian Thomas and Gina Hocking, Demos, 2003, p73

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Topics Politics


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