Monday, 29 September 2014

On Possibly Coming Round to Votes at 16, by David Lindsay

I am still not convinced about lowering the voting age. We are being bounced into it because 16 and 17-year-olds have voted in the Scottish referendum. But my mind is no longer entirely closed to that change itself.

I remember what it was like to be a politically active Sixth Former. It is not an experience that I shall ever forget. No one who was one could ever imagine that it was, is, or will ever be normal.

Even a superbly well-educated 16-year-old is still a 16-year-old. Lowering the voting age even further might pose a very serious threat to democracy, since no one seriously imagines that the opinion of a 16-year-old matters as much as that of his Head Teacher, or his doctor, or his mother. Why, then, should each of them have only as many votes as he had? Thus might the process start.

Harold Wilson probably thought that he might gain some advantage from lowering the voting age. But the Sixties Swingers hated him (that is largely forgotten now, but it is true), and they handed the 1970 Election to Ted Heath instead.

If there had been a General Election, as was once widely expected, in the spring of 1996, then, having been born in September 1977, I would have been able to vote in that Election, even though I would still have had a couple of months of school left to go.

But by then I had been free for more than two years to walk out any time I liked. I would have been so free even if the school-leaving age had been raised to 18, as is now going to happen.

Lowering the voting age to two years below the school-leaving age would literally be giving the vote to children: to people whom we, as a society, had decided were not yet capable of deciding for themselves whether or not they wished to leave full-time education.

It is still well within living memory that most people left school, and went straight into taxpaying work, a full seven years before they were entitled to vote. Now, we propose that people should have the vote two years before they were able to leave school.

If anyone doubts quite how monolithically middle-class our political culture has become, then consider that it has almost certainly never occurred to the proponents of lowering the voting age that even 21 was ever attained before leaving full-time education, never mind a third of one’s life to that date after having done so.

And yet, and yet, and yet.

With the introduction of individual registration, I suspect that the proportion of the extremely elderly that remained on the electoral register would be hardly, if at all, higher than the proportion of those all the way up to the age of about 25.

Of those registered, if 16 and 17-year-olds were able to be so, then I strongly suspect that a higher proportion of them would actually exercise the franchise than of the over-90s, who are also a very small cohort overall.

I have seen the way in which candidates press the flesh in nursing homes when there is an election coming up. Some of the residents know exactly what is going on. Others are decidedly confused. Others again hardly know Christmas from Tuesday. 16 and 17-year-olds would be very much the same.

(By the way, I am wholly unshocked by the practice of activists filling in postal voting forms on behalf of the institutionalised elderly who ask them to vote for those activists’ candidates. If that did not happen, then those electors' clearly expressed preference would go uncounted.)

Like a lot of my vintage, I see one third of bus passes used to commute, for much of the year from and to homes heated by the Winter Fuel Allowance. But then I consider that there will be none of those things for us, even though the people now coming into them no more fought in the War. They were no more on this earth than we were while the War was being fought by anyone.

In my more mean-spirited moments, I ponder that people who “worked all their lives” were paid to do so, and ought not to have spent it all, as of course many of them did not, with the result that they are now loaded.

Or I ponder that they have not in fact “worked all their lives” if they have retired a mere two thirds of the way through the probable length of their lives.

I make no apology for seeing no War-like debt to be repaid to those whose formative experiences were sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, full employment, cheap housing, student grants, public ownership, municipal services, the explosion of mass consumer affluence, and the felt need to demonstrate against another country’s war because this country was not waging one.

However, I believe in full employment, cheap housing, student grants, public ownership, municipal services, and opposition to American wars of liberal intervention. I am by no means averse to the finer things in life. I fully recognise that few are those who could really manage without their bus passes or their Winter Fuel Allowances. I support the principle of universality to the very marrow of my bones.

No, the question is one of balance, plus the perfectly simple writing into the legislation of a ban on jurors aged under 18 or 21, as there is already a ban on jurors aged over 75.

Balancing generational interests is as important as balancing class interests, or regional interests, or urban and rural interests, and so on. Only social democracy can do those. Only social democracy can do this.

The sheer size of the ageing Baby Boom is such that the democracy in social democracy might require a modest reduction in the voting age. While that case has not yet been made sufficiently convincingly to justify the change, I am less and less decided that it simply never will or could be.

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