Votes at 16: the key to political engagement?
The 2005 election has been characterised by the highest political disengagement this country has ever seen – and 18-24 year olds were the worst offenders, of which only 37 per cent used their right to vote. (Tom Burke: 2008) This is a fatal blow to our democracy, suggesting a new generation of apathetic voters will dominate the coming political landscape. It also means that politicians can marginalise issues affecting young people within debate. Through the subsequent POWER report, and arguments made by a vast coalition of supporters, the idea that lowering the voting age to sixteen would encourage participation has gathered too much momentum to be ignored. (Power Report: 2006) It would seem the issue of apathy must be tackled from its root, and the increasing use of citizenship lessons and technology must be harnessed to engage a generation who feel their views are being ignored. Research suggests that the common perception of young people’s disinterest in politics is strongly misconceived. Young people, via citizenship lessons, can have the same grasp of the issues affecting them as most adults, and therefore should be trusted to have a say on those issues. Furthermore, whilst sixteen year olds continue to exercise other rights of citizenship, such as paying taxes and serving in the armed forces, they deserve to have influence over politics and to be recognised as full citizens.
By sixteen the majority of young people are both ready to vote and want to participate in the political process, hence deserve to be heard. It has been suggested that at this age people are simply not educated enough to be given the responsibility of voting. This patronising argument echoes those made regarding women in their fight for the vote; that they had no political awareness or views that their husbands would not serve to represent. However, women gained the ability to represent themselves directly through the vote, and young people deserve to do the same so that government will take their concerns seriously. Women proved more than able to understand political decisions, similarly young people would be capable of engaging with the system as adequately as most adults. Through the increasing use of citizenship lessons as part of the curriculum (especially since 2002) pupils have become more engaged with politics and are inclined to use their political rights where they have been given.
Furthermore it is argued that young people themselves do not express much interest in gaining the vote, but this too is a patronising argument that hasn’t fully captivated the voices of young people themselves. Research in 2004 by the Electoral Commission found that 72% of young people favoured lowering the voting age. This has been encouraged by programmes such as the “Votes at 16” Campaign, youth club activities, the UK Youth Parliament and the Enlgish Secondary Students’ Association. (Burke, p.7) It has been argued that just because young people don’t shout out their views to political parties it does not mean they don’t have them, as the Children’s Rights Alliance for England says “the fact that young people are not using traditional ways to express their views does not mean this is a matter which does not concern them…it tells us more about how excluded young people feel” (CRAE, 2000). Therefore politicians are in no place to argue young people have no interest when they have not fully engaged with them or given them the political confidence to begin expressing themselves.
Granting the vote at sixteen would help to solve the problem of disengagement of young people from politics, and giving them full citizenship can only improve generational relations. The POWER report recommended lowering the voting age because the longer young people are denied involvement in politics the less chance there is of ever engaging the younger generation. This has been shown in a study by Beth Breeze, former Deputy Director of Social Market Foundation, who found that the longer away from your birthday the opportunity to vote came the less likely you were to use it, with some people at present unable to vote until they are 23 (Burke, p.14). Despite the fact that only 37% of 18-24 year olds exercised their right to vote in the last election, research shows that 81% of 12-16 year olds believe young people need to have a voice in politics. Therefore, to fuel political engagement and exploit this in its infancy, a culture of proactive citizenship and regular voting must be instilled into our youth. At the age of eighteen lifestyles are often far more transient, with the impracticalities of reaching students in multiple occupancy housing, their high turnover rate, and the predominance of more important activities and responsibilities, voting can often fall down the list of priorities. Young people, who are still at home and studying are more likely to benefit from education as a result, stimulating their minds and entrenching regular voting habits. Alongside increasing citizenship education, it makes sense for young people to be involved in the decision-making process they are learning about. As Harriet Harman has said, “my concern is that there’s a generation of young people who are never going to get into the voting habit…we’ve got citizenship classes going on in schools…if people came straight out of citizenship class into the polling station then there’s continuity and that might be an opportunity for them to get into the habit of voting” (Daily Telegraph, 12.01.08).
In addition, excluding young people from the political process sends them the wrong signals; for example that their views are not valid and that politics is not a way to express them. full citizenship will promote a more inclusive society, tackle youth stereotypes and encourage young people to engage more with society. This is especially necessary when sixteen year olds already exercise other rights, such as paying taxes and joining the armed forces, yet have no say over how these measures are implicated. At present the inability to vote can lead to a dislocation from political structures for young people and from society at large. By including them in the political process politicians would be forced to take their views seriously and avoid negative stereotyping which may lose voters. It would also serve to bridge the gap between young people and adults, by entrenching expectations of them to act like citizens. It will send out the right signals that they are an appreciated part of our society, with valid issues affecting them and the right to influence these.
At sixteen, young people are both ready and would like to be included in the political process; they have a political energy which should be encouraged and harnessed. They have real issues affecting them which they deserve direct control over, and should be shown that the way to express these is via the political process. We can help to solve the problem of political participation in this country by tackling disengagement from its onset, treating sixteen year olds as full citizens and engendering the habit of voting from an early age.
Article by Vicky Shreeve. Edited by Marc Geddes.