Votes at 16 can help address the widening gap between people and politics

1st October, 2013 5:36 pm

When 16- and 17-year-olds were given the vote for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, it created a cast-iron logic for introducing votes at 16 universally. Why should these particular young people be entrusted with the franchise, and not their counterparts in the rest of the UK? And why should they have a say on independence but not on who represents them at the local, Holyrood or Westminster level?

That ruling, passed into law this summer, made votes at 16 for all British elections more likely. But that is not why Ed Miliband was right to commit Labour to the policy in his conference speech last week. It was right because votes at 16 could be an important first step in addressing one of our most pressing problems: the widening gap between people and politics.

There are good reasons to think that giving people the vote at a younger age will improve the chances of them being engaged in politics for the rest of their life. According to Eric Plutzer, voting is a ‘gradually acquired habit’, and the earlier you get into that habit the more likely you will sustain it over a lifetime.

But voting should be more than just a behavioural tic, and that is why citizenship education is so important. If 16- and 17-year-olds are given the vote, they should already be thinking deeply about what it means to be a good citizen. One of the advantages of votes at 16 is that it allows young people to exercise their civic rights while their citizenship education is still fresh in their mind. But if that citizenship education is insufficient, then the benefits of early voting will not come through.

Many who teach citizenship in schools bemoan the fact that it is accorded too little status in the curriculum. Labour should think about embedding the votes at 16 pledge into their wider programme for renewing education policy, with particular emphasis on citizenship. Political reforms are too often framed within a ‘constitutional’ silo, cut off from the rest of public policy. Votes at 16 is the perfect antidote to this. It is by exploring every issue from education to the environment, from the economy to immigration that younger people will feel more motivated to come to the ballot  box – not the other way round.

There are some excellent examples of what a renewed commitment to citizenship in schools might look like – a recent IPPR report cites four schools which not only take citizenship teaching seriously, but also instil a commitment to democratic participation in their students across their activities both in school and in the community.

If this kind of initiative is encouraged, then it could make the promise of votes at 16 turn into the reality of a more engaged society. This is not just about young people now. Votes at 16 could be the start of a wider debate about what constitutes political participation and what are the barriers stopping people of all ages from taking part.

In the end, this policy’s true measure of success will not be the numbers of 16- and 17-year-olds who turn out to vote, and it won’t even be the overall voter turnout in generations to come. It will be the degree to which people are more likely to participate in our democracy, whether in their neighbourhood, through their workplace or trade union, or as elected representatives. That should be the ultimate aim of any civic reform, and votes at 16 is no exception.

Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society

  • Ben Cobley

    I’m thinking we should be focusing more on trying to engage the existing electorate a bit better rather than creating a new one.

    I also don’t like the idea of our schools and sixth-form colleges becoming overtly party political – there are some nasty potential unintended consequences in that.

    • swatnan

      You’re right. Votes at 16 will go down like a lead balloon, especially amongst the 16 yr olds.

  • Peter Metalli

    No taxation without representation.

    Can’t expect them to to pay income tax if we don’t give them the right to tell MPs how to
    spend it.


  • Comment Featured Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse risks being all fur coat

    Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse risks being all fur coat

    It’s a movement that shows no sign of slowing down. As cities and counties line up for devolution, the Chancellor is casting himself in the role of Commander in Chief. It took the Labour Party too long to recognise that after years of debate about Scottish independence and Welsh devolved government those of us who remain might rightly ask as well, what about us? Whatever your political view it is hard not to credit Mr Osborne and the many local leaders […]

    Read more →
  • Comment The Tories aren’t evil – and it’s not helpful to think of them so

    The Tories aren’t evil – and it’s not helpful to think of them so

    I am a Labour voter.  I am in fact a Labour member as of about 6 weeks ago.  Despite the best attempts of the triumphant ideologues of the far left who are have taken over the party, I have as much right to be in this party as they do (and potentially more given that so many of them have supported far-left anti-Labour parties such as the Greens and Trade Union and Socialist Coalition). As such, I’m not particularly fond […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Dinner snatchers: Are cuts to infant school dinners the dish of the day?

    Dinner snatchers: Are cuts to infant school dinners the dish of the day?

    With November’s Comprehensive Spending Review fast approaching, what is and isn’t mentioned in ministerial speeches at Conservative Party Conference should be taken as an indication of what is and isn’t up for grabs. Having been a general election commitment is no guarantee. The media coverage of Nicky Morgan’s speech today is likely to touch on her newly acquired status as an ‘outsider’ for next Tory leader. She is speaking on the same day as other higher profile pretenders to the […]

    Read more →
  • News Video “I never want to be remembered particularly” – Denis Healey’s final interview

    “I never want to be remembered particularly” – Denis Healey’s final interview

    Last night Newsnight aired the final broadcast interview that Denis Healey took part in before his death at the age of 98 this weekend. Filmed just a few weeks ago, the former Chancellor is asked how he would like to be remembered, replying modestly that “I never want to be remembered particularly.” He also says that he had entered politics in the 1940s because he wanted “to change the world”, but would probably not do so anymore “because the class […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured 5 things you need to know about the Tories’ energy and climate policies

    5 things you need to know about the Tories’ energy and climate policies

    1. The Tories’ energy and climate agenda is in a mess – and yesterday it got worse At their conference in Manchester the Tories desperately needed to re-set their approach to energy and climate change. Since the election the government has cut, delayed and scrapped multiple energy schemes putting jobs and investment at risk, setting back our efforts to tackle climate change. Before yesterday everyone knew the Tories’ green agenda was a mess, but in their speeches George Osborne and […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends