It’s all very well pontificating about whether 16 and 17-year-olds should get the vote. You can’t speak with any authority on the matter unless you live with one.
I’d long argued that extending the franchise to under-18s would be a bad move; pandering to the ceaseless desire for something new in politics, giving Jeremy Corbyn a stick to beat parties deemed as less-progressive with and succumbing to the ceaseless demands of entitled millennials to have their own way.
Then two things happened; Brexit and my son Jack suddenly growing up before my eyes. Although we disagree on many things, one matter on which we do concur is the mess the country is in. Politically ‘woke’ young people of Jack’s generation – he turned 17 this summer – feel even more powerless than the rest of us.
He sees nothing but roadblocks ahead; student tuition fees, expensive housing, the gig economy and the possibility (his words) of pretty soon living in a cold, wet, grim little country with foreign travel looking more expensive and difficult than ever.
So I asked him to express in a few words why he felt that he should be able to accompany me to the polling station in December. What do you think he said? He didn’t trot out all the justifications for under-18 enfranchisement that we did more than three decades ago – because you can fight for your country, pay taxes and marry when you’re 16, and drive a car when you’re 17.
He didn’t even point out – but others have – that in 2014, 16 and 17-year-olds were granted a vote in Scotland’s independence referendum. Or that the same demographic can also vote in Tory leadership elections if they are party members. He simply said that he was so worried about his future and how his country might be about to change. It was only right, he added, that young people should have a say, because after all they are the ones who will have to live with the consequences of who ends up in Downing Street.
And he pointed out that his granny, who is almost 76, said the other day that she agreed with him. Her opinion, oft-expressed, is that she worries far more for her four grandchildren making their way in a terrible world than she does for her own generation.
Entwined in this of course is the Leave/Remain dichotomy. When the online forum the Student Room conducted its own poll on the day of the EU Referendum in 2016, 82 per cent of respondents backed Remain. Whether this result would be replicated in any kind of second referendum remains to be seen, but it’s clear to see which way the majority of young people would swing. Given the chance, such numbers backing Remain would have seriously impacted on the outcome three years ago.
This is not for a minute to assume that 1,395,000 individuals (the number of UK 16-17 year-olds) would all be Remain supporters of course. And although the Leave/Remain issue cannot be ignored, it would be facile – and patronising – to assume that today’s young people only want the vote so they can express their views on Europe. They are far more savvy than many Westminster politicians give them credit for. It was too late in the day for Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to lower the voting age as part of agreeing a General Election deal to stick, but he shouldn’t assume that teenagers would automatically vote Labour. Jack says he would, but only if they had a different leader.
Some politicians are also woefully out-of-touch. Former Prime Minister Theresa May shrugged off the idea with the justification that – “we now expect young people to stay in educational training up until 18”. This is an argument as fallacious as it is illogical. By that measure, the right to vote would also be denied to university students, who are also technically in ‘educational training’. And it might surprise politicians who support May’s view to learn that countless young people under 18 are working independently in jobs that have nothing to do with any kind of educational training.
I learned only the other week of my friend’s daughter; she left school at 16 and has been working in a call centre for a year to gain vital experience before securing herself an excellent job in business administration. If she sets foot in ‘educational training’ again it will be under her own steam and not because of any Department for Education diktat.
Above all, however, the thing that teenagers worry about is the suitability of our political leaders to, well, lead us. I’d trace this distrust to the David Cameron years; under his Premiership, Westminster seemed to cast itself ever more adrift from the rest of the country. Young people growing up in places like Yorkshire felt keenly that they had been left behind. I’d argue that this is what opponents of lowering the voting age are really scared of. If the voice of this forgotten generation spoke, it would roar.