Reducing the voting age to 16 may have seemed like one of the more throw-away policies in Ed Miliband's 'We're better than this' conference speech. But it encapsulated the simplistic appeal to base prejudices that characterised his sermon. And being 'better' was perhaps a mantra he should have first recited to himself.
Of course nobody really believes that 16-year-olds should have the vote. With the legal drinking age set at 18 as well as marriage without parental consent, it is ludicrous to suggest that a teenager should be licensed to influence the governing of the country before they are entrusted even to govern themselves. So why the policy?
It has been suggested that it was a capitulation to the unions. Or that it was a cunning ploy to garner more Labour voters - after all, students are all socialists, aren't they? Well, most are, yes. But the logic is even less rational than that. Does Miliband genuinely believe that because young people care about university fees, they should also get to influence taxes most don't pay, jobs most don't work, houses most don't buy, etc. etc? Of course not. The intention is purely to appeal to the most populist of emotions. 'Give them a voice' was the rallying cry. Really? What do they have to say? What do they really know?
Of course there are always the engaged few, but even the most well educated of teens very often display a spectacularly poor grasp of politics, and an even more spectacular lack of interest in it. It would be far more beneficial to introduce into schools the compulsory study of politics between the ages of 16-18, than to simply throw the vote to a Facebook-addicted mob. Teens are possibly the group most influenced by the opinions of others, most judgemental, and least informed. (A recent Comres survey showed that 27% of young people don't trust Muslims and 15 % don't trust Jews - just as an example.)
But this is exactly what Miliband is hoping for and banking on. For our ignorance to outweigh our reason.
We are all of course ignorant in some areas. We are all biased by deep-rooted prejudices etched hard into our psyches, born perhaps of circumstance or personal resentment, or anecdote. But it is the duty of politicians to reach beyond this, not pander to it, not exploit it. Unfortunately, this is exactly what Miliband did, using every trick in the book.
The One Nation project that began a while ago seems now to have been just the beginning of a Labour determination to incite and enrage those who feel they are on the unlucky side of a rich-poor divide. Everything Miliband said in his oh so sincere speech was carefully framed to provoke an us-and-them response. Some proclamations thinly veiled: "[Cameron] thinks for Britain to win the global race you have to lose". Others, openly provocative: "They used to say a rising tide lifts all boats, now the rising tide just seems to lift the yachts."
This stance might be just about defensible if his long list of 'policies' supported a true commitment to raise mass living standards. But once unpacked, they are quickly exposed as ill conceived at best, deceiving at worst. The energy price freeze is the most glaring example of this. Not only will it discourage investment in the sector and risk a fall back to the days of strikes and blackouts, but analysts have shown it to actually leave the average consumer with a higher not lower energy bill. Does this matter to Miliband? Apparently not so much as tugging on those handy social divides.
The danger is that we as the electorate will allow ourselves to be manipulated in this way. It would be nice to believe that we are more sophisticated than that. That we will all study the various parties various policies before casting our votes, that we will not be tempted to let our uninformed prejudices get the better of actual information. But in truth this is rarely the case. We vote with our gut. We vote with our anger, our bias, and all the most base trappings of society. Miliband knows this, and that is why it is irrelevant to him whether 16 year olds know anything about the state of politics. Perhaps they should take a test before they can vote. Perhaps we should all take a test. Perhaps as a society we should value knowledge and not prejudice.
Until that far off day however, Miliband's strategy is highly irresponsible. These are the tactics of UKIP. These are the tactics of the desperate. These are the tactics of propaganda politics. For a man who is supposedly all about the substance...well, Ed, you can do better than this.