Votes at sixteen: why does it matter?
Whenever I was sixteen, I was absorbed by the cut and thrust of politics and enamoured of a rather romantic idea that all politics truly needed was the right person to change the world. Needless to say a corollary of that idea included the right person being me. Many years later, the cynic in me has won through and, though I was once an ardent advocate of votes for 16 year olds-plus, now I don’t really see the point in it.
The whole matter has been receiving attention, first from a Private Members’ Bill which was denounced by various Tories as a ‘gimmick’ and then from a circular passed around by Young Labour. Stephanie Peacock (by all accounts a wannabe) and Liv Bailey (who has a brain and for whom you should vote at any given opportunity) are pleased that the National Policy Forum has endorsed the idea of votes at sixteen plus.
Stephanie and Liv are respectively the youth representative for the NEC and the Vice Chair of Young Labour and are hoping to get the idea approved by Conference and, presumably, integrated into the next manifesto. The whole thing smells to me of a populist bid on the part of Labour leadership and this sense is reinforced by the language of the email circular from Young Labour.
“…Lowering the voting age to 16 will give young people more of a voice and a stake in their communities… Labour is taking this bold step to empower young people, but the battle isn’t won yet.”
Even if that is the case, it shouldn’t impact our assessment of the issue in itself: it doesn’t matter if Gordon Brown supports it and then leaves it to a Private Members’ Bill, which the government allows to be talked out of existence. If it’s worth pursuing we should pursue it – but I’m still at a loss to why we should make a song and dance about it. Will this change anything, apart from adding to the categories of ‘stakeholder’ to which the government must attempt to seem accountable?
After years of being involved with the European Youth Parliament, Youth Councils in the town where I grew up and various other political endeavours for ‘der yoof’ I am firmly convinced that these things are set up largely as a boon to different levels of government. At every level, they can be pointed to as though they mean the government is engaged with young people and they also provide excellent photo-opportunities. Many of the council-employed staff who often devote hours to helping run them don’t want things to be like that – but they are.
They cannot be anything else, largely because they incorporate the ‘individualist’ view of politics which is endemic to the adherents of the mainstream political parties. It’s no different in Northern Ireland, where the major parties go by different names and policies. The only real difference is that in England there are some councils such as Medway which go all out to provide facilities and then fill them by practically ordering every school to send young people along, so that the whole effort seems less lacklustre than elsewhere.
If one confronts politics as though it is the equivalent of sitting in a room, alone, and choosing between the pre-set alternatives then no amount of effort is ever going to engage the 18-24 age grouping, never mind if we add the 16+ groups. Young people are no different from the rest of the population – they have opinions and ideas – but there is no avenue whereby change can be effected. An enduring feature of trade unions at the moment is their startling lack of young members in many areas – and as vehicles for change, Labour isn’t doing any better at attracting young people.
People who have had life long attachments to the Labour Party are currently dropping away at an alarming rate. Anecdotal evidence has put the Party at membership levels on par or lower than those in 1918, when individual membership was first counted. A document from the Welsh Labour Party reveals the increasing detachment of the New Labour elite from the complete disintegration of the Party at branch level. As older members pass on, there are no young people to pick up the slack. How will allowing people to vote at 16 change this much wider malaise?
The answer is of course that it won’t. Young people don’t feel disfranchised because they don’t have the vote – ask any 18 year old. They feel disfranchised because they don’t see how things can change. The irony is that the very Labour leadership which professes to want people to engage with politics has spent the better part of the past twenty-something years trying to make sure that even within the Party, the popular voice is drowned out. It is for that reason I don’t feel like helping out with this campaign.
As a brief addendum, it seems that the Irish government is going to continue having referendums on European integration until it gets the answer it wants. One can bet that if this was the situation in the UK, our own government would do exactly the same thing. When ones vote evidently counts for so much, the whole idea of voting at all can seem wholly ridiculous. The only thing left to wonder at is why sixteen year olds want the vote at all! I suppose the truth is that most don’t care.