25 October 2019

Beware the siren call for votes at 16

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The chaos in Westminster has given fresh impetus to the campaign to lower the voting age to 16 for UK-wide elections and referendums. Opposition parties and Remainers backing a ‘Confirmatory Referendum’ on Brexit all appear to view extending the franchise as an opportunity to pick up votes from younger people and ‘break the deadlock’. This is clearly dodgy, both in principle and in practice.

Dealing with the principles first, there are good reasons why the minimum voting age is usually set at 18. They are the same as the reasons why you have to wait until you are 18 to take out a mortgage, credit card or personal loan, serve on a jury, become a police officer, fight in the armed forces, get married without your parents’ permission, buy alcohol, tobacco or fireworks, and gamble.

At 16, the law does allow you to leave home or school, take a full-time job, become a company director, and have consensual sex with someone who is also at least 16. However, these are still not actions that society would usually encourage at such a young age. Instead, they are choices that society feels it should not have the right to stop people from making. This is rather different.

Advocates of lowering the voting age also often say that 16 is the legal threshold at which you can marry or join the army. But at this age you would still require the consent of your parents or guardians (at least in England), and would not be eligible to serve in combat roles (that’s a reference to the army, by the way, not the fine institution of marriage).

The obligation to pay taxes is frequently mentioned too – by all sides in the debate – but I don’t think it is relevant either. It is correct that 16 is the threshold for paying National Insurance Contributions (NICs), if you earn enough, and for receiving some state benefits. It is also the age at which you start to qualify for the National Minimum Wage.

But, in general, your liability for taxes depends on your income and expenditure, not your age. A successful child actor, for example, could pay a large amount of income tax, while there are plenty of adults who don’t earn enough to pay any income tax at all. Everyone, regardless of age, pays indirect taxes, such as those on sugary drinks, and the same rates of VAT on the goods and services that they buy.

Admittedly, the voting age has already been lowered to 16 for local and devolved election in Scotland, and 16-year olds were able to vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. The Isle of Man and Jersey lowered their voting ages to 16 some years ago. Wales is set to follow suit. But this isn’t necessarily a strong point. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to have a lower voting age for decisions about local rather than national issues. And it is still the case that the normal voting age for national elections is 18 in almost all other countries in Europe, as well as the rest of the world.

This is not to say that there is no case for lowering the voting age for UK-wide elections and referendums too. I’m still persuadable on this. 16 and 17-year olds do already have some important rights and obligations. Young people are probably now much better informed, thanks to improvements in citizenship education in schools and the rise of social media. Politicians may give more consideration to the interests of young people if they are also voters. And getting people involved sooner helps to strengthen political engagement in later life – voting is a habit.

But I’m still far from convinced that the time is right to change now. The reality is that most 16 and 17-year olds are still children living at home and going to school. In my view, there is enough pressure on them already. Classroom teaching and social media are also no substitute for experience of the real world. If you are likely to live to 90 anyway, waiting to vote at 18 rather than 16 is not a huge disadvantage.

There are also many other ways to engage in politics without being able to vote. It’s a myth that people only vote on the basis of their own narrow self-interests. Adults do think of what is best for others, including their children and grandchildren, and the country more generally. They can therefore still be influenced by what young people have to say.

Put it this way – would anyone seriously argue that politicians care less about knife crime because the victims are often too young to vote? Or would anyone deny that 16-year-old Greta Thunberg’s voice is being heard, whatever else one might think of her opinions?

There are also practical objections to the idea that lowering the voting age could break the deadlock in Parliament and on Brexit. For a start, this would only work if the new electors cast their votes decisively one way or the other. Of course, opposition parties and Remainers hope this would swing the outcome in their favour. Some opinion polls suggest they might be right. But this would be a pretty cynical attempt to skew the results.

In any event, it would surely be premature to change the law to allow 16 and 17-year olds to vote in the next general election, which could be as soon as December. What time would this give them to come up to speed? It would only make sense to lower the voting age once everyone involved has had more opportunity to prepare. This means more investment in citizenship education and ensuring that young people hear a wide range of views, not just those considered trendy.

Similar arguments apply to any repeat of the 2016 referendum on EU membership. As it happens, I don’t see the need for another ‘Peoples Vote’. But holding another referendum would already be controversial enough without changing the rules on voter eligibility at same time. That would be moving the goalposts even further.

What’s more, many Remain-supporting MPs are claiming that they still don’t have enough information on which to make an informed choice on a Brexit deal after more than three years of parliamentary debate and scrutiny. Taking them at their word, why do they think 16-year old children would be in any better a position?

In summary, it’s surely not unreasonable to argue that people below a certain age are much less likely to be mature or experienced enough to vote. Otherwise, why don’t we lower the voting age to, say, 14, or allow everyone to do anything they want at 16, including buy cigarettes, drive a car, be sent to an adult prison, or die for their country. We have to draw lines somewhere.

By all means, let’s do more groundwork for a lower voting age in future. For now, though, the threshold for the most important UK elections and referendums should remain at 18.

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Julian Jessop is an independent economist