Friday 19 October 2012

No to votes at 16

I know I'm out on a limb here, as both the Liberal Democrats and the Electoral Reform Society, both of which I am an enthusiastic member, advocate that the voting age be reduced to 16.  But I can generate little enthusiasm.

Most of my teaching career has been with the 16-18 year old age group - sixth formers generally preparing for university.  At 16 most of them have simply parroted their parents' views on social, political and economic issues.  By the end on the two-year course some were beginning to think more critically, but most still adhered to the family prejudices.  I myself was no exceptions: I was in my mid- 20s before I saw the Liberal light.

Professor Vernon Bogdanor, an "expert" on the constitution, argues in favour of votes at 16 because he believes that school pupils will still have in mind their civics lessons and so gain the habit of voting. If they have to wait for another two years they may never get into the habit. I find these arguments unconvincing.  As a  teacher of social sciences I have occasionally been lumbered (I use that word advisedly) with giving the civics lessons, and they have all been crass failures.

 I acknowledge that others may have been more successful, but I found the kids just weren't interested in how to vote, what local councils and councillors do, how parliament works and what a privilege is it to live in a democracy.  I also acknowledge that this may not be the most successful approach, but it is the content that the "man form the council" had in mind a few years ago when were were subjected to in-service training on the topic.  Some months later Tony Blair illegally invaded Iraq and hundreds of pupils in our area played truant in order to join protest marches.  The council were outraged.

Just as in the Third World you don't stop the drift to the towns by putting more agriculture in the curriculum, we shall not invigorate our democracy by tinkering at the edges with the procedures: longer hours for voting, polling booths in supermarkets, more postal votes, lowering the age, electing police commissioners.  To make democracy meaningful children need to participate in it in their homes and schools by sharing in a limited way in making the decisions that affect their lives, and adults in the wider society by devolving meaningful power to communities to make their decisions, and by electoral systems which make most votes count for something.


  1. This is a debate worth having, I think, because you've put your finger on an important question: are many of our fellow-citizens sufficiently well-informed and mature to participate thoughtfully in our democracy? As a university lecturer (I've put a couple of guest posts on Liberal England as Dr Anonymous), my observation is that even many highly qualified 18 year olds are not. The level of public debate and civic participation in our society is declining. Whether votes for 16 year olds are a good idea or not, the issue needs to be considered in that context. (I’m not advocating, by the way, some sort of test to allow voting rights, as in the pre-Civil Rights era southern states!)

  2. Thanks for your comment. It's interesting that, though engaged in higher rather than secondary education, you come to much the same conclusion as I.

    A full exploration of how to raise the level of interest and participation in politics is a topic for a book, or even a series, rather than a comment on a blog. I repeat that I doubt if putting more politics in the curriculum, or further fiddling with the mechanics of voting, are the answer and make three suggestions:

    1. As R A Butler said (though I believe he was quoting someone) "democracy is government by discussion." Children and young people therefore need, both in the families, schools, colleges and universities, to get used to taking part in meaningful discussion and participation in decision making in some parts of their lives that are important to them.

    2. The parties need to change their styles from: "This is what we will do for you if you vote for us," to building a system in which the government's task is to create an environment in which we are enabled, as individuals, families and communities, to do things for ourselves.

    3. The combative style in both parliament (Question Time - ugh!)and its reporting in the press needs to be replaced by intelligent discussion of alternatives.