All of Britain’s principal political parties, with the exception of the Conservatives, remain committed to reducing the voting age to 16 to boost electoral turn-out in an era of declining participation in civic affairs : what some experts refer to as the ‘democratic deficit’.
In the last general election, held in 2017, only 53 per cent of young people aged 18 to 24 voted. Just under a half didn’t bother for a variety of reasons, ranging from apathy, lack of knowledge of the issues, or what the main parties stand for, alienation, anomie, or the perception that all the major political parties had nothing meaningful to offer to youngsters. Nothing further could be from the truth; but perceptions still shape reality. The British government needs a wake- up call, if representative democracy, is to survive during the rest of the twentieth-first century.
That’s why think tanks such as the IPPR, and Labour, the Liberal-Democrats, the Greens and SNP are calling for the voting age to be lowered to 16, to boost electoral turn-out, and to strengthen our liberal democracy in the UK.
Let’s examine the case for and against this policy proposal. The independent Electoral Commission recommended in 2011 that the voting age stays at 18. According to the Commission, on the basis of extensive field work and surveys, young people aren’t politically mature enough at 16. They don’t know enough about politics, lack confidence and don’t feel ready for the civic responsibility of voting at 16. The Commission’s survey of 1,000 young adults suggested strong support for keeping the voting age at 18. As a former teacher of Citizenship in further education, over ten out of 16 of my learners, some of who were politically active- studying the subject at AS level, backed up this finding!
Some experts believe that lowering the voting age would increase the number of people who don’t vote – now standing at about 35 per cent. According to the political scientist Chris Pattie, if the voting age be lowered to 16, overall electoral turn-out could fall to below 50%, threatening the legitimacy of any democratically elected government. Likewise, some policy wonks draw on international comparisons, arguing that most liberal democracies throughout the world have a minimum voting age of 18. All this sounds convincing, until you consider the counter-arguments.
Advocates backing the reduction of the voting age to 16 have hit back. 16 to 17-years olds they maintain have the right to get married with parental consent, have sex, smoke, work, gamble, hold a passport, serve in the armed forces and pay tax and NI – therefore they should get the right to vote.
Similarly, the same people point out that voting at 16 would improve ‘civic participation’. Young people, they argue, are more ‘politically active’ than other age groups. True, more youngsters take up volunteering activities, than middle-aged citizens, and are more likely to get involved in single-issue campaigns, often around environmental issues or animal rights and protection. But the fact remains, older people are more likely to vote in general, local and Euro-elections. Turn-out amongst pensioners is over 76 per cent, according to figures collated by YouGov, after the 2017 general election.
Likewise, supporters of reducing the voting age to 16, point out that allowing people to vote earlier will help combat voter apathy. According to one expert, Professor Breeze, people who can vote earlier are more likely to vote again. It becomes a central feature of the ‘’political socialisation’’ process. It worked well in Scotland in the recent referendum, where over 75% of young people aged under 21 voted – many of whom were aged 16 to 17.
The findings are contradictory and inconclusive when you consider both sides of the coin. Clearly, there’s a powerful case to get more youngsters engaged in the democratic process. So why not set the voting age at 17 when young people have completed a one year course in Citizenship studies or British Values from the age of 16 as recommended by Northumbria University Don Keith Shaw.
This would enable them to grasp voting and electoral processes, as well as giving them a sound knowledge of Britain’s legal, social, political, cultural and economic systems. Most new arrivals to the UK are legally and morally obliged to sit tough citizenship tests, and attend citizenship ceremonies at their local town hall. Let’s give young adults the opportunity to follow a level 2 or 3 Citizenship course, as a mandatory part of their advanced level programme at school sixth form, college, or apprenticeship agency to give them the fundamentals of our democratic system, as well as providing them with a meaningful qualification which all universities in Britain accept.
A Citizenship diploma based on the Australian model is the way forward if Labour is serious about creating a democratically, informed, engaged electorate, and boosting voter turn-out in all elections, including council elections where less than one in 10 people under 29 vote!!. Do that, and there’s a compelling case for reducing the voting age to 17. Many youngsters, having acquired the basic skills and knowledge, would vote with a degree of confidence once they hit the age of 17.