21 September 2023

Cynical Starmer sees votes for 16-year-olds as a reward for obedience


Keir Starmer’s capacity for flip-flopping on every significant political issue makes it difficult to say for sure what Britain might look like should Labour win the next general election. However, one thing seems increasingly likely, a Labour victory could make 2024 the last year in which voting is restricted to adults. 

Plans to lower the voting age to 16 have been set out in what is assumed to be a blueprint of Labour’s election manifesto, a final report of the National Policy Forum, the group that shapes the party’s political agenda. It states: ‘Labour will introduce votes for 16- and 17-year-olds, in line with Scotland and Wales, so that young people feel empowered and can fully engage in our democratic processes.’ It continues, ‘Those who contribute to our society should have a say in how it is governed.’

I need to declare an interest. My daughter is 17. She works hard both at school and in her Saturday job in a local restaurant. But contribute to society? No. Or, at least not yet.

Labour’s proposals speak to our confusion about what it means to be an adult today. Every cultural trend pushes older teenagers to stay childlike for longer. Back in 2008, the last Labour government introduced legislation to ensure young people stay in education or training until the age of 18. With close to 40% of these 18 year-olds then going on to university, the days of teenagers in full time employment are long gone. 

Other rites of passage have been pushed back, too. We no longer let 16 year-olds buy cigarettes, for example, and sneaking into nightclubs under-age might not have been legal but it was certainly widespread. The outrage now directed at Russell Brand for having had a sexual relationship with a 16 year-old girl suggests that, as a society, our views of young people and sex have shifted considerably over the past two decades. People have begun questioning whether 16 is too young for people to consent to sex.

Labour has no plans to challenge the view that 16 year-olds are children, not adults; it just wants the franchise extended to those deemed too young to purchase cigarettes or alcohol. We need to ask why.

Clearly, it is unusual to have two different voting ages in one country. In Scotland, and more recently Wales, 16 year-olds get to vote in national assembly and local council elections. This creates a perceived unfairness: why should English teenagers be denied the same opportunity?

‘Opportunity’ is the right word here. In every other era, extensions of the franchise have come about as a result of major protests and lengthy periods of agitation. The last time I checked, 16 year-olds were not organising petitions or marching on Parliament demanding suffrage. Perhaps I’m being old fashioned. But the fact is, ‘votes for 16 year-olds’ barely registers as a social media trend. There is no avalanche of TikTok videos featuring 16 year-olds explaining how life would be better should they be able to vote. 

When the right to vote is given, not demanded, it suggests that the act of voting is no threat to those in positions of power. This certainly seems to be the case in Scotland and Wales. Surveys suggest that 75% of 16 and 17 year-olds voted in Scotland. This was more than the next cohort of young adults (just 54% of 18 to 24-year-olds voted). Perhaps voting is a novelty for the newly-franchised and not-yet-jaded. Or perhaps schools and colleges are able to drum home the importance of voting as an act of citizenship, akin to recycling rubbish and using a person’s preferred pronouns.

The National Policy Forum’s own explanation is revealing. It says the voting age should be lowered so ‘that young people feel empowered’. Note: not that young people are empowered, but that they feel empowered. This suggests voting is important as a way of boosting our self-esteem and making us feel good about ourselves. Whether anything actually changes as a result of us entering the polling booth is irrelevant. What matters is that we feel as if we have made a difference.

The National Policy Forum claims that lowering the voting age will restore faith in democracy. In fact, there are good reasons to think it will have the opposite effect. Handing out votes to children so they feel better about themselves suggests Labour sees voting as a reward for obedience. Rather than having to persuade cynical adults, electoral success will come from getting the right instructions dished out in citizenship classes. This is not about ‘fully engaging in democratic processes’ but compliance in a bureaucratic exercise. 

Allowing 16 year-olds to vote tells us more about Labour’s degraded view of democracy than it does about their perception of young adults. Labour is courting children because the party spies an uncritical and obedient audience. This is shameless electoral gerrymandering.

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Joanna Williams is the director of Cieo and the author of How Woke Won.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.