It’s not often that I agree with David Cameron. But if there’s one thing he and I see eye to eye on, it’s that I shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
You see, I’m 16 years old — and according to researchers at the think tank Dpart, the voting age should be lowered so that my friends and I can have a say in the running of the country. The idea is that it will increase our engagement with politics.
This brainchild of the Scottish National Party is now backed by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and about anyone else you care to name. The argument at its simplest is: Scotland did it during the referendum, and that turned out all right, so why shouldn’t we give it a go?
Well — to be as polite as possible — as a generation we just don’t know enough. When it comes to politicians, most young people I talk to know exactly three of them. There’s the one who’s Prime Minister. There’s the one who made our GCSEs harder. And there’s the one in London who got stuck on the zip wire. Try as I might, it’s rare to find someone my age who has passionate views about the bedroom tax or NHS privatisation.
This isn’t to say that young people are apathetic, or lazy, or whatever other cliche you want to wheel out. The fact is, so many of the key policies that the election will be fought on just aren’t integral to our everyday lives. As much as I’d like to enjoy the sort of living conditions in which I’d be affected by a “mansion tax” or income tax cuts, I’m still living with my mum — and have roughly £17 in my bank account. I’d challenge you to find a lot of 16-year-olds who aren’t in the same boat.
Of course, lots of my contemporaries like the idea of being able to vote. This year the UK Youth Parliament chose ‘Votes at 16’ as its priority campaign, and support seems to be ever-increasing. But for most of my friends, the details are more than a little fuzzy. I asked one, an enthusiastic supporter of the plan, whom he’d actually vote for. “Oh, probably just whoever my Dad likes.”
To fix this we’d have to combine a lower voting age with a massive increase in the amount of political education and engagement in the national curriculum. But seeing as people can’t even agree on how topics like sex education should be taught, getting agreement on a huge infusion of civic education seems unlikely.
The one good argument in favour is that there are too few policies aimed at young people. But who’s to say that lowering the voting age will lead to any more? Even if a few of us troop to the polling station, we’d be no match for the roaring, thunderous force that is the over-sixties — the nation’s most dedicated voters. They’re the ones who file the deciding ballot papers, and policies are tailored accordingly.
If young people are going to have an impact on politics, we need to focus not on those taking their AS-levels, but those who are already enfranchised — in particular, the 56 per cent of 18-25-year-olds who didn’t vote in the last election. If numbers give you power, we need to make sure those numbers turn up on election day.
Ed Miliband, who has supported the votes-at-16 plan, says it will help politicians “hear the voices of those who haven’t been heard in a long time”. But he doesn’t seem to have thought about what they’d actually be saying – only about the boost Labour would get in the polls.
Perhaps he and the other politicians could stop telling us they want to hear our voices, and start offering targeted and sympathetic policies that directly affect our lives. Improving the education system, investing in vocational opportunities, capping our university fees the list goes on. If any of that’s on offer by the time I turn 18, then I might actually know what I want to vote for.