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Voting at 16 - Has Labour got it right?

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Labour has recently committed to lowering the voting age from as early as 2016. But will it work and how is it working in the crown dependencies around the UK? Chris Owen and Will Barnes debate the issue.

Labour's plans to introduce a new voting age of sixteen following victory in 2015's general election make entire and unequivocal sense not only for Labour themselves, but for the common sanctity of democracy in our country. It's no wonder that many are running scared at the very idea.

In the UK today, a sixteen year old can be a full time worker, business owner or parent. They can be detained in custody, claim unemployment or disability benefits, and, with the consent of a parent, join the armed forces or own property. In short, sixteen is accepted in this country as the age of legal and personal responsibility in all manner of things. A sixteen year old has no say, however, on the political processes that govern the very terms of the rights to which they are entitled. They cannot vote in local, European or general elections.
Why? Charles Moore, writing in The Spectator, essentially refutes sixteen as an acceptable voting age on two grounds. The first is that sixteen year olds are broadly disinterested in the workings of politics. The second is that, as a societal bracket, they're not educated enough to have a say; he believes that sixteen and seventeen year olds 'may be more likely to vote Labour' because 'most children know nothing about money' - an entirely charming and not at all prejudiced view to take.

Whilst both of Charles' opinions may be - to a reasonable extent - provable, neither is a viable nor relevant reason why sixteen year olds shouldn't have the vote. Let's take the first. I come from a place where 16 year olds can vote in national elections. That place is the Isle of Man. It's small, sparsely populated, and, beyond its unquestionably moral tax haven credentials, not very important. Voter turnout is poor, averaging at roughly 50%. And the majority of 16 year olds really don't care either way. If a late-teen was to vote it would likely be because the candidate is their mum's best friend's work colleague, or because their 30 acres are across the road from your dad's cowshed, or something to that effect.

Part of this apathy is a product of the fact that many of the Isle of Man's governmental processes, as with the crown dependencies of Jersey and Guernsey and the devolved assemblies around Britain, are still party to the whims of UK parliament, either directly or indirectly. It's hard to be passionate about what seem essentially like local elections, regardless of their national character. There's also the fact that the bulk of candidates stand independently, with the Liberal Vannin Party being the sole advocator of party politics; it's even harder to be passionate about local elections when no one is entirely sure what the candidates stand for in any ideological sense, and there are no discernible counterpoints.

However, in 2013, when the Isle of Man government chose, like an ageing and increasingly clumsy poodle, to dutifully follow in the footsteps of Westminster rather than stand shoulder to shoulder with Holyrood over the issue of higher education fee contributions, the sixteen year old voting right suddenly came into its own. It rapidly became apparent that politicians were listening to and acting on behalf of teenagers not principally because of any moral political duty, but because of direct democratic accountability. Imagine now that in 2009, sixteen year olds in the UK had the right to vote. Would any party have dared propose the removal of the cap upon tuition fee contributions? I hazard not.

It is then entirely irrelevant that 16 year olds may not care about politics. Their broad set of political interests - whilst perhaps not understood or appreciated in those terms - need representation, and that representation needs to be made democratically accountable. Equally, their apathy is deserving of a voice as much as that of the individual choosing to vote. How else will the extent of displeasure, dissatisfaction and disengagement from present political structures and paradigms be accurately measured and subsequently acted upon? Not giving sixteen year olds the vote means not giving them a voice to which they are entitled by their wide range of societal accesses. Whether they choose to use that voice to speak out is negligent; their silence needs to be heard, registered and fully considered as much as those choosing to speak.

Charles Moore's second assertion is even more spurious than his first - because teens are ill-educated in politics, they need not, and should not, vote. To call this logic confused would be to pay dear Charles a compliment. Surely the most fundamental of steps to take to see that teens begin to engage with politics is to give them a direct impetus by which to do so? My sixteen year old self would ultimately never have taken a blind interest in any kind of political activism or activity if I wasn't impelled to a large extent by my democratic responsibility. To give teens the vote is to give them the tools with which they can construct their own political persuasions, preferences and opinions.

Surely, too, the dire need for better, more thorough political education in this country would be highlighted and impelled by the granting of the sixteen year old vote? Might we perhaps see - however cynically driven - parties begin to engage with actual, proper teaching of political issues and processes? Politics is only boring or irrelevant when taught wrongly, as it broadly is today. When it is offered in terms of the self and in terms of one's immediate interests and surroundings, it is made essential knowledge that no one would wish to shirk receiving.

Essentially then, we need to ask ourselves, what should come first? Political education, or the impetus to be politically active? It's a vicious circle being held at arm's length by today's politicians; this, to me, highlights where the real apathy lies.

The sixteen year old vote cannot dilute or compromise UK politics; it can only strengthen, diversify and hone it into something more coherently workable and accessible. I applaud Labour for their bold addressing of this issue. Here's to hoping it points to the construction of a healthier democracy with more fluent accountability that will put a stopper in the kind of 2010 Lib Dem back-pedalling that has come to define modern U-turn politics.


I am firmly of the view that the franchise should not be extended to 16 and 17 year olds and I believe that it would be categorically wrong to do so. Having been brought up in Jersey, a Crown Dependency where in 2007 the Jersey assembly narrowly brought in 16 year olds in to the franchise it has done nothing to empower the youth and has consistently perpetuated low voter turnout. Jersey's electoral turnout has often left much to be desired for, it attracts an embarrassing mid - 40% turnout with many seats often left uncontested. Although many have argued that empowering 16 year olds with the right to vote will enable them to engage with the democratic process earlier on and create a habit of regular voters. However such idealism did not follow through and now more than ever the 16 and 17 year old voter group consistently shirk their duty to vote clearly making the situation worse.

However before beginning why I am against extending the franchise, it is necessary to clear up some common misconceptions often used as arguments by those who support votes for 16 and 17 year olds.

Firstly it is totally incorrect to argue that a 16 year old 'can die for their country yet not vote in it.' While it may seem true on the face of it, the reality that under 18's cannot take apart in front line fighting or be on the battlefield as under 18's are banned from "taking a direct part in hostilities" enshrined in UK law it is apparent that the chance of 'dying for their country' are pretty slim. Also much like through everyday life there are safe guards in place to protect under 18's from certain experiences or items. This is reflected in the need for parental agreement to enrol the under 18 year old into the military.

The second argument often cited by pro-16 year old vote supporters is that they have the potential to pay income tax. Virtually hardly any 16 year olds pay tax and with the vast majority of 16-17 year olds in full time education why should they be voting to affect the way the vast majority of the population are being taxed? The old American Revolution slogan 'no taxation without representation' is often cited, however the same is true the other way around. Also just as there are restrictions on 16 year olds joining the military there are also measures in place that restrict the pay of 16 to 17 year olds such as staggered pay as seen by the bands in the UK national minimum wage laws.

Finally the third example is that of marriage laws. Whilst they may get married it is once again not without restrictions or safe guards. For instance the need for agreement by parents of both sides of the couple which further puts forward the notion that 16 to 17 year old are not fully independent members of society and thus safeguards are needed. Restrictions on other areas such as 18+ age restrictions on video games, films and alcohol all of which prohibit the selling of the items to them. Therefore why should 16 years old be allowed to vote and possibly sway the outcome of decision which legally cannot affect them? There are safe guards in the law restricting products and practices for under 18's and so why shouldn't our electoral age also reflect this?

However the argument boils down to whether people think 16 and 17 year old are at the age when they are mature enough to vote. There are no doubt plenty of mature enough 16 and 17 year olds through the UK may mature enough to vote. However once you allow them to vote then surely you allow them access to other 'adult' civic practice? For example serving on juries and as magistrates, serving adult prison sentences and also theoretically become MP's. Furthermore with 16 year olds now being technically classified as 'adults' will they also serve their criminal convictions in adult prisons. Of course all of these are hypotheticals, but is one uses the argument that they are mature enough to vote then surely that are mature enough to participate, endure and serve other adult practices?
Another issue one of which I have seen first-hand in Jersey is that some 16 year olds are heavily influenced by their parent's political opinions and will consequently vote in line with their parents rather than making an informed judgement. Meanwhile another two years often allows for the development of their political opinions thus allowing 18 year olds to make a more informed vote.

As shown throughout there are many common misconceptions often used as arguments for extending the right for 16 and 17 year olds to vote. Ultimately it comes down to whether you think it's fair that 16 and 17 year olds can heavily influence the outcome of decisions in which they cannot partake in many of the effects of the decision.


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