We need to talk about the voting age

None of the reasons given for denying teenagers the right to vote makes any sense at all. Some teenagers know next to nothing about politics but this is also true of many adults. Teenagers don’t have enough life experience to be able to understand everything at stake in an election but who does? There are plenty of situations that can require teenagers to pay tax and they have a bigger stake in the effectiveness of public services than the majority of the population. The only real argument for keeping the age at which citizens acquire the right to vote at 18 is that it’s what we’ve done until now. That’s never a good enough argument.

Children are held responsible for obeying laws over which they have no say from the age of 10. They can join the army and fight for a country that denies them full citizenship from the age of 16. They are deemed responsible enough at 17 to manage the potentially lethal risks of driving a car but not to choose their local MP. This is completely incoherent.

One assumes the actual reason this government, and the older voters who keep it in place, oppose lowering the voting age is that they suspect it would skew the electorate leftwards. From my experience as a teacher, I have observed that children of all ages tend to have a greater intolerance for unfairness than adults, who have become more resigned and cynical about injustice. The notion that being greedy is undesirable and that sharing is desirable drives many tantrums among young children and much of the rebellion and frustration that we associate with adolescence. The conclusion of this is fairly inevitable: one imagines a lowering of the voting age would benefit left-wing parties. But disenfranchising someone purely because you think they’ll disagree with you is what dictators do.

Many people on the right of politics are equally resistant to the idea of pupils being taught about their place in society and the political system at school. This is why citizenship is disappearing from our schools and replaced with meaningless grammar tests. Their fear, I suspect, is that teaching children about democracy in a thorough, meaningful way would give teachers room to “indoctrinate” children. Conservatives and traditionalists in Britain are convinced the teaching profession is full of Marxist ideologues trying to spread their ideology to the next generation. It has to be said, Labour’s rather cringeworthy party political broadcast last week depicting a primary school teacher lecturing her pupils about the virtues of Jeremy Corbyn really didn’t help.

In truth, very few teachers I know cared about politics much at all until 2010. If they’ve become left-wing since then, it’s mainly because they’ve witnessed the Tories’ utter incompetence in administering the education system. For the Tories to accuse them of left-wing bias is like trying to drown someone and then accusing them of being irrational in their fear of water.

Exactly how low the voting age should be lowered is a matter of debate for another time. My personal view is that the Age of Criminal Responsibility and the age at which a person can vote should be the same: if you’re old enough to be deemed able to understand the law, you should be able to participate in deciding the law. However, I realise that’s a radical shift I’m highly unlikely to see in my lifetime. But denying 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote is a gerrymandering of the system; a deliberate disenfranchisement of people with a legitimate right to a voice for purely political reasons. It’s an outrageous injustice we tolerate only for the reason so many other injustices are tolerated: it’s always been like that.

16 and 17-year-olds deserve the right to vote and schools need to prepare their students to appreciate the gravity and solemnity of that privilege with a balanced programme of study about democracy and the British political system. Young people could actually register to vote at school to get them into the habit of doing so.

If we want young people to behave as responsible adults, we might want to start by treating them as such.

One comment

  1. Yes! I would rather trust voters from the 16-18 age group than many of my own misguided generation. Having spent over 40 years trying to educate children to use reason and debate about major issues, when the curriculum allowed time to do such things, I hope at least some have gained some insight into how we are misled by the media and how hard it is to get a truly unbiased and balanced view but I am fully aware that parental and peers views have more profound influence! Trust them!

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