Kids with Guns: The Politics Edition

For the last few months, the British Labour party have been criticised for failing to offer much in the way of policy. As opposition parties always do, they’ve criticised most of the government’s decisions, claiming that things would be better if only they were in power. But, once it comes down to specifics, Labour have been much quieter than they probably should have been.

Those who follow Ed Miliband will know that getting him to commit to a policy is like trying to catch bees with a lasso. When journalists ask him to say what he thinks, his answers are so vague that it’s hard not to admire his commitment to equivocation.

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This interview from January is a good example of Miliband sophistry. Like a ninja dipped in grease, he slips through the clutches of BBC’s James Landale, speaking for twenty minutes without making a single election promise. Do watch it, it’s really quite impressive.

But as the 2014 General Election approaches, the public are becoming less and less sympathetic with Labour’s refusal to stand for anything. Labour has got to make some big promises.

This Sunday, Sadiq Khan, the Shadow Justice Secretary, made just such a promise when he said that Labour will go into the next general election pledging to lower the voting age to 16.
He told a Sunday Times reporter:

There are more and more things that 16 and 17-year-olds can do – work, pay national insurance and tax, have sexual relationships, get married and enter civil partnerships and join the armed forces.

‘Pro-16-ers’ love this argument because it shows that there is a clear problem: how is it fair that a 17-year old can fight for their country but have no say in how that country is managed?

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Similarly, how could two 17-year olds get married and not also receive the vote?

The problem is that neither of these assertions is strictly true. We do allow young people to do these things, but we place limitations on them because they are a little too young to make such huge choices independently.

‘Pro-16-ers’ use often use marriage as an example, but although teenagers can get married, in England and Wales you cannot do so at 16 or 17 without parental consent. If your parents don’t approve then you must travel all the way to Scotland and get married there, where teenagers can tie the knot.

We place strict conditions on young people trying to make life-altering decisions, for good reason. So to suggest that it’s inconsistent to deny teenagers the vote is very fuzzy thinking indeed.

And that is the most frustrating thing about the debate: those in favour simply ignore a lot of the evidence.
So what are the facts? Don’t worry, XWHY has done a little digging for you.
We spoke to Philip Cowley, Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham, about Labour’s most recent proposal. As you might expect, he’s not a fan:

One problem is that the pro-16 campaign is full of myths and misrepresentations. A good example is the claim that if people are allowed to serve in the military it is wrong to deny them the vote. It’s a powerful, emotive argument. But we only allow people to join the armed forces below the age of 18 with their parents’ permission, and then we don’t allow them to serve on the frontline until they are 18.

As Cowley also argues, the majority of the public are dead against the change:

Several years ago, the Hansard Society investigated what the British thought about their constitution. They found just one part of it that the majority of the public both understood and approved of. That was a voting age of 18. So it is a very strange way to reinvigorate democracy, by taking the only bit that people like and understand, and changing it against majority opinion.

While claiming to strike a blow for democracy, by giving the disenfranchised youth a vote, Labour are actually proposing to do the opposite.

You could make all sorts of cynical suggestions about why Labour want to lower the voting age. One is that they believe most 16-17 year-olds are likely to vote Labour, so it will give them an advantage over the Conservatives.

Another is that it’s a nod to the Liberal Democrats, who have long supported the move. If Miliband can persuade the Lib-Dems that he is sympathetic to some of their favourite causes, a coalition between the two parties could be more likely in the event of a hung parliament.
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But Westminster plotting aside, a quick glance will tell you that Labour’s latest proposal is based on very wobbly foundations. Sadiq Khan’s claim that the move will reinvigorate British politics is also dubious from a, you know, factual point of view.

Not across the board, of course, but arguably as a general principle, the young are a notoriously apathetic group who don’t really want to engage in politics. An Ipsos MORI study of the last Election shows that the 18-24 age group is the one which votes the least. In 2010, just 44% of them showed up to put an ‘X’ by their chosen politician. By comparison, three-quarters of those over 55 cast a vote.

Because the figures show that voter attendance decreases with youth, less than 40% of 16 and 17 year-olds would bother showing up to vote. Hardly ‘invigorating’ by anyone’s standards.

But the best reason for denying teenagers the vote is the easiest one to illuminate: once you’ve finished reading this piece, click left through the photos on your Facebook timeline and then say, with a straight face, that the person looking back at you should have a say in national politics. I don’t see a well-informed, critically-thinking young adult. I see a scruffy child whose strongest belief is that he should be allowed to stay out later on a Friday night.
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That’s not to say that age necessarily brings wisdom. But people on both sides of the issue agree that we can’t let the very youngest in our society have the vote. We have to draw a line somewhere, and what’s wrong with the one we’ve got?

WORDS: Joe Kavanagh

For more from Joe, head to his Tinge of Ginge blog.

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