Labour’s 2015 manifesto yet again contains a promise to lower the voting age to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in elections. It is likely to be a commitment shared by the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, the Greens, and Plaid Cymru.
There seems to be very little public demand for lowering the voting age. A YouGov poll found 60% of the public were opposed to votes at 16, while only 20% supported it. Even Labour supporters and younger generations were opposed. Only 29% of Labour supporters agreed the voting age should be lowered, while those aged 18-25 were opposed 57%-21%. It’s clearly an issue no section of society supports Labour on.
There is agreement that young people are turned off by politics, and this can be seen by the fact 18-25 year olds have the lowest turnout in elections. But there’s no evidence to suggest that by lowering the voting age young people will engage with politics. In fact, evidence from the very few countries in the world that have such a low voting age, suggests the opposite.
In Austria, one of only six countries in the entire world to have 16 as their voting age, under 18s have the lowest turnout in elections. While Democratic Audit shows trials in Norway and the Isle of Man have seen very low turnouts and no evidence of increased political interest or engagement in politics. The argument seems to be: 18 year olds don’t vote, so let's allow 16 year olds not to vote as well.
As reported in the New Statesman, Labour have previously argued that at the age of 16 the law gives you a number of rights and responsibilities, and so the age of enfranchisement should be lowered. The obvious examples are the age of sexual consent, marriage, joining the army, and leaving home.
However, to get married, actually fight in the military, and leave home, you need permission of someone over the age of 18. It is also a very small percentage of 16 or 17 year olds that do any of these things. In fact the direction of travel seems to be towards entrenching 18 years as the recognised age of adulthood, with legislation raising the age in which you can buy cigarettes, have a tattoo, or use a sunbed, to 18 years old from 16. It seems hypocritical of Labour to argue that 16 year olds can make a considered decision on who should run the country, but not if they wish to use a sunbed.
“No taxation without representation” is often cited as a reason to give 16 year olds the vote. But from this year onwards every child has to stay in some form of education until they turn 18, so the number of of 16 or 17 year olds earning enough to actually pay income tax is almost none. And with the tax threshold continuously rising, the number seems set to fall even further.
But even if this wasn’t the case, we don’t use income tax as a criteria for whether other groups in society get the vote - the unemployed, the retired, and students rarely pay income tax. You could argue 16 year olds pay indirect taxes, but so does everyone of any age, you wouldn’t expect a 13 year old to be able to vote just because they pay VAT on a packet of sweets.
Lowering the voting age to 16 has no public support, virtually no international precedence, no evidence it will increase engagement in politics within young people, and seems hypocritical when the government won’t let the same age group buy fireworks or have a tattoo. It’s likely Labour cynically see it as a good opportunity to increase their voter base (young people are more inclined to support Labour), and can be seen as doing something radical to improve democracy, while actually failing to address any of the underlying issues regarding youth apathy towards politics.