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

October 1, 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.

    http://afreeleftblog.blogspot.co.uk/

    • 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.

Latest

  • Comment We want to build relationships with Labour – but they need to take some bold steps

    We want to build relationships with Labour – but they need to take some bold steps

    First my credentials. I have supported Labour at every election since I was old enough to vote. I am a party member of some 30 years standing. Why then, as the General Secretary of the trade union for staff in further and higher education am I in such utter despair at the timidity of the policy offer made by Labour to the members I represent and their students? Let’s be clear, I believe the coalition’s policies have been a disaster […]

    Read more →
  • News I was “never ever complicit” in illegal rendition or torture, says Jack Straw

    I was “never ever complicit” in illegal rendition or torture, says Jack Straw

    Jack Straw has condemned the use of torture and denied being complicit in the torture of suspected terrorists, following the publication of a report in America concerning the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs). Straw was Labour’s Foreign Secretary from 2001 to 2006, during the foremost years of the “War on Terror” and the UK’s military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Questions have been raised concerning what members of the British government knew about the use of EITs, but […]

    Read more →
  • Comment How not to change the constitution

    How not to change the constitution

    In this Parliament AV was rejected, Lords reform stumbled and even the Tories attempt to ‘equalise’ constituencies fell. ‘The Implications of Devolution for England’ already looks unhealthily like these other failed constitutional reforms. Nonetheless, the issue holds real dangers for Labour. Hague’s partisan and divisive Commons statement showed the Tories’ more concerned to maximise difference than to bring people together for the good of England. Yet even this couldn’t disguise Conservative divisions. In three months his Cabinet Committee failed to […]

    Read more →
  • News “Our choice is the country’s choice” – Lisa Nandy’s LabourList Christmas Lecture

    “Our choice is the country’s choice” – Lisa Nandy’s LabourList Christmas Lecture

    On Monday evening Lisa Nandy MP gave the LabourList Christmas Lecture to launch her pamphlet “Our Labour Our Communities” – you can download the pamphlet here. Here’s the text of that lecture: We’ve got five months to go until the most important General Election in a generation. And over the last year, as I’ve spent time with Labour candidates meeting and listening to people in communities as diverse as Brighton, Norwich and Calder Valley it seems to me the overwhelming […]

    Read more →
  • News Polling New Ashcroft polls shows the point where the Labour gains stop coming

    New Ashcroft polls shows the point where the Labour gains stop coming

    The latest batch of marginals polling carried out by Lord Ashcroft has been published today, and it does not bring many glad tidings for Labour. The polling covers four Labour seats: Dudley North, Great Grimsby, Plymouth Moor View and Rother Valley; eight Conservative seats: Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire, Ealing Central & Acton, Elmet & Rothwell, Harrow East, Pendle, South Swindon, Stevenage, and Warwick & Leamington; and one Green Party seat: Brighton Pavilion. All of the Conservative held seats, bar Warwick & […]

    Read more →