My elder daughter, Megan, will be 16 in a few months time. She is, I’m pretty sure, fairly typical of her age group. Almost everything in a mid-teenager’s world is black and white: they don’t often ‘do’ nuance.
Trigger words and phrases (“it’s bedtime,” “finish your homework,” “not until you tidy your room,” “can you run to the shop,” “I don’t care what all your friends are allowed to do,” and “no, you can’t”) can drive her into a rage of Lear-like proportions. Doors will be slammed and objects strewn as she heads for her bedroom and her earphones. A little while later—usually at the moment when she realises that she is starving, or needs help with a forgotten homework—she shuffles downstairs again and tries to win us over with a sheepish grin and a barely audible “sorry for shouting: do either of you know how to turn a piece of metal into a permanent magnet and is there any Nutella left?” That’s teenagers for you!
I love her. She’s bright, inquisitive, challenging, moody, fickle, monstrous, kitten-like, temperamental, soft, kind, defiant, proud, messy, passionate, lazy and funny. She is a teenager: red in tooth and claw, changeable as the weather and capable of swinging from fascism to liberalism in the course of a conversation.
Ideas and beliefs tumble out of her like confetti tossed on a fan and you can never be entirely sure what constitutes a belief and what is merely a fad or the latest ‘cool’ thing to say. In other words, she’s growing and developing. She’s beginning to make sense of the world around her; beginning to think on her feet and have opinions on something more substantial than Lady Gaga or the latest Twilight or Hunger Games sequel. Is she ready to cast her first vote? Is she ready to make an informed choice on who should sit as a councillor, MLA or MP; or make an informed choice on which party would best represent her interests? Hell, no! Is she ready to be targeted by political parties prepared to use every trick and wheeze they think will work on her? Hell, no! Has she enough experience of life and of standing on her own two feet to make a judgment call on manifestos and socio/economic polices? Hell, no! Is she ready to vote? Is she responsible enough to vote? No, she’s not.
Some supporters of votes for 16-year-olds argue that they can join the Army at 16. Yes, they can, but only with parental permission. And personally, I don’t think they should be allowed to join any armed force at 16, either.
If I don’t believe they’re responsible enough to vote then I’m equally sure that they’re not responsible enough to be drilled and trained and prepared for conflict zones. There will come a point when they are (maybe, just maybe)
prepared to make an informed choice about a career in the armed forces—and have some understanding of the physical and psychological demands of the career—but 16 is not that point.
I know, too, that teenagers are allowed to drive at 17. But that’s only after a series of lessons and passing two types of test. The United Kingdom still operates a certification system for films and DVDs (even for some computer games), judging some of them to be too explicit for viewers under the age of 18. Again, I would make the case that if we think a 16/17-year-old is not emotionally/psychologically prepared for certain types of film then why would we think they are ready to vote?
It is clear that some of those who support reducing the voting age seem motivated by the fact that turnout is falling—collapsing is probably a better word—particularly in the 25-55 category. Maybe they see it as a way of
increasing turnout and adding some legitimacy and authority to the final result. But the question which really needs asked is why turnout has collapsed: why so many people don’t actually want to vote any more?
I don’t believe it’s because people aren’t interested in politics: go to any pub, dinner table, canteen conversation or even bus stop and you’ll hear people talking politics.
They don’t vote because they don’t believe that their vote will make a difference.
They don’t vote because they think that the political parties will end up doing much the same thing anyway. They don’t vote because they have no expectation of government making a significant difference to their everyday lives, or of dealing with issues that really do concern or worry them. It’s not about liking or trusting politicians. I don’t think there was ever a time when politicians were necessarily trusted or liked: but there was, I think, a time when they were respected and expected to govern in the best interests of the country. That dimension has gone.
Giving votes to 16-year-olds won’t make a blind bit of difference to any of this and nor will it address the key problems at the heart of government and at the heart of our party political system.
And I’m not convinced by the argument of those who seem to think that younger teenagers will be more moderate, or liberal or less set in their ways than the rest of us. Most of us don’t really change all that much in our political outlook: we may move a little one way or another over the years, but that’s about the height of it.
So instead of new parties and new thinking we’ll just end up with bigger youth wings of the mainstream parties and a handful of no-chance radicals who’ll settle down when a mortgage, career and kids come along.
Giving 16-year-olds the vote is running away from the problem of falling turnout. But running away from problems is the one thing that mainstream parties are very good at! “Ok Megan, put the earphones down and get the