THE BLOG

Why We Need to Lower the Voting Age

23/12/2013 14:42 GMT | Updated 19/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Do politicians treat young people with contempt? It's a question I've found myself asking a lot recently. Unlike many my age I'm no angry, placard waving ideologue. Nor do I sign up to the snouts-in-the-trough school of cynicism. I genuinely believe it is plausible to see our political system as a vehicle for progressive change. I think that, by and large, our politicians enter politics for the right reasons. I'm no longer surprised though, or even entirely unsympathetic, when I see young people opting out of the conventional political process, either through issue-based protest, or by simply switching off.

You don't have to look back far to see young people's issues ignored. This generation of politicians, shameless beneficiaries of free education, lecture us on why we should pay for the privilege. When I interviewed Lib Dem MP Norman Baker recently, he revealed that, behind closed doors, Nick Clegg had always argued against the 2010 policy of scrapping tuition fees. Labour's proposal of £6,000 fees strikes me as almost as disingenuous as Clegg's original pledge - as calculatedly bad a deal as Miliband could realistically offer without jeopardising student support. In last week's autumn statement, Osborne announced we won't be retiring until we hit 70. Cameron's suggestion to curb benefits for the under 25s seems to have received implicit cross party support. Our 'lost generation' is on track to become the first since the great depression to be worse off than our parents.

The necessities of austerity politics? It doesn't seem so bleak on the other side of the hill. Bus passes, TV licences and winter fuel payments have all conspicuously remained universal, even when the state pension currently makes up one sixth of public spending. Elderly benefits are well-acknowledged sacred cows of politics, seemingly regardless of economic context. Why? Because old people vote, in droves. Yet in 2015 there will be 22 year-old first-time voters, denied until that moment any opportunity to have a say in national politics that will have made countless decisions affecting their lives.

Young people are from the start isolated from the political process. In a system that has taken a patronising, paternalistic approach at best, and a flagrant disregard for their interests at worst, it seems little wonder that many young people have chosen to reject politics entirely. Even the paternalistic argument is deeply contradictory: from the age of 16, we are considered adult enough to live alone, to pay taxes, to start families, to get married or join the army. A perceived lack of maturity does, though, undeniably serve as a convenient excuse to deny young adults from having their say.

In his excellent book, Why We Hate Politics, Colin Hay notes a link between first-time voting and future political participation; whether someone votes at the first possible opportunity is a good indicator of how likely they are to do so in future. By shutting people off from the political debate in the first few formative years of their adult life, we are alienating them from politics at the outset. In its current form, our political system is breeding the very apathy that it claims to see as such a problem.

This is why it's time to lower the voting age to 16. We need to be turning young adults onto politics - not away from it - at a time in their lives which can decisively influence their future civic engagement. A society that ignores, even resents, the political process is a dangerous one; but that seems to be where we are headed if things do not change.

To see this move as no more than a concession to misguided youth apathy is to misunderstand the issue at stake. Lowering the voting age would lead to a fairer, more considered process of politics, in which it would be no longer possible to ignore the legitimate grievances of young adults. It is difficult to imagine David Cameron brazenly scrapping EMA for the poorest 16-17 year old students, while allowing elderly millionaires to continue taking advantage of unneeded state benefits, had the former group been viewed as a rightful part of the fabric of society. While young people continue to be ignored by the political process at this formative point in their civic lives, it is inevitable that a rejection of this process will become an appealing show of defiance, given their otherwise lack of agency.

Lowering the voting age is by no means a silver bullet to political apathy, an issue so deep-rooted that no single reform can be seen as a remedy to the problem. But it would be a step in the right direction, and might just amount to a turning of the tide against youth disenfranchisement. Surely this can only be a good thing.