Time to trust 16-year-olds with the vote – Jayne Dowle

MY daughter is 16 in October and I would like her to accompany me to the polling station and vote in the next elections, local or national, whichever comes first.

A polling station in Leeds last Thursday but should the voting age be lowered to 16?
A polling station in Leeds last Thursday but should the voting age be lowered to 16?

As things stand however, Lizzie will have to wait two years until she is 18 to do this, the same age as her brother is now.

My daughter says that it’s her future we’re talking about, and that at an age when she would be allowed to get married, pay income tax and National Insurance and join the armed forces, she should have a say.

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“But do you feel 16-year-olds know enough about politics?” I ask her. “Some will, and some won’t,” she replied. “Just like the rest of the population.” She makes a fair point.

Should the voting age be lowered to 16? Columnist Jayne Dowle poses the question.

If we lived in Wales or Scotland, Lizzie would be gearing up to go and vote already. Last week in Wales, for the first time, 16 and 17-year-olds were permitted to vote in local and Welsh Assembly elections, joining young people already afforded the same privilege in Scotland.

In England, however, and also Northern Ireland, this demographic is still excluded from the ballot box across the board. Even though Northern Ireland’s devolved Assembly passed a motion in 2012 supporting “Votes at 16”, it does not have the powers to enforce it.

Does this sound fair to you? If I was 16 or 17, I would be mightily frustrated. As far as I’m aware, the Prime Minister has given scant thought to the issue of lowering the voting age in England.

If Mr Johnson thought about it for a moment, it might even do him some good.

Youngsters outside a Sheffield polling station in 1964.

The argument always held that Conservative governments were against lowering the voting age because younger people were more likely to vote Labour or for an alternative party such as the Greens.

However, as it did with many other things, this given was upended by the December 2019 general election.

Although research by polling company IPSOS Mori suggests that the Conservative share of the vote fell eight points with voters aged 18-24, giving Labour a 43-point lead in this age group, evidence suggests that Mr Johnson proved popular amongst younger men, especially in traditional communities in the North of England.

And this was two years ago. A lot has happened since then. After Brexit turned everything on its head, there are no longer any assumptions to be made in politics.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his fiancee Carrie Symonds leave after casting their vote at Methodist Central Hall, central London, in the local and London Mayoral election.

In addition, young people are essentially visual and social media creatures; if you showed a typical cross-section a photograph of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and one of Boris Johnson I think you know which one most of them would recognise immediately.

Ask many to explain how the ‘first past the post’ system works and they are mystified, as are many adults, some of whom struggle to differentiate between local and parliamentary elections. Thanks in no small part to Mr Johnson himself, a significant number of people vote for personalities these days.

Last week Jack dutifully accompanied me to the local polling booth – call me old-fashioned, but I still hold the ritual of putting a manual cross in the book in high reverence – to place his vote in the local council elections.

He’s done it since he was small, because it’s a visual symbol of everything his ancestors fought for. Our polling station overlooks the old pit stack on the other side of the valley. He knows I’m going to remind him of his coal-mining great-grandfathers and the unenfranchised masses before them toiling underground, stymied for generations by the property qualification.

With Lizzie, there is the added dimension of equal rights. I would be letting down my grandmother, born before female enfranchisement, if I didn’t remind her of the significance of having a vote of her own.

It’s important for young people to understand the significance of being able to exercise their democratic right. Whilst our political system is far from perfect, the process of considering which candidate you feel best represents your interests and committing to your decision is an important part of growing up and realising that communal effort is important, even with modern mores.

I admit that until my two became teenagers themselves, I was very sceptical about lowering the voting age. Remembering what I was like at 16, hot-headed, opinionated and often, misguided, I didn’t hold much faith in allowing under-18s free rein. I feared it could be pandering to demand and slightly irresponsible.

Then, as Jack and Lizzie grew older, I realised that it certainly wasn’t all about me. Today’s young people are far more worldly-wise, better-informed and certainly, after a year under the iron rule of Covid-19, well-equipped to question political motivations. As such, it’s time the Prime Minister, a father himself, recognised this too.

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