For your 16th: the vote

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Here’s a Facebook status I wrote after the 2010 general election: “Well played Britain, we’ve now got a smarmy bastard in charge of the country.” Cutting edge political analysis, I’m sure you’ll agree, and this is exactly why Labour is right to call for the voting age to be lowered to 16.

It’s easy to chalk opinions like my status up to immaturity, resting on the presumption that in a few years’ time a valid opinion will arise from the mire of political apathy. That’s the system we and most countries use. Yet I know people 18, 20, 25 years old (and older) who profess artificial opinions just like my status. Many others say nothing; they couldn’t care less. Why? Allow me to very briefly quote Tony Blair: a lack of “education, education, education.”

Just a few months shy of the age where I could pay taxes, marry, and enlist in the armed forces, I typed out that stance based solely on David Cameron’s manner, not on his politics. I knew very little about that part. Lowering the voting age is the best way to counter that if we go about it the right way – the right way being education, which is something I had not received on the subject of politics. This is why education has to come part and parcel with enfranchisement. At the moment, by the time we queue to put a cross on a ballot sheet, school has come and gone. When we ought to have been schooled on how our country is governed and has been governed in the past, school stayed ominously quiet.

If we look at Scotland, where the voting age was lowered to 16 prior to the referendum, schools introduced lessons and discussions about independence and politics. Were the pupils more susceptible to ideological indoctrination? Certainly not. Students of this age understand mathematical equations beyond my grasp, so I think they could comprehend a topic which has even greater impact on their lives – a topic one could argue has more relevance than a great deal of the current syllabus.

Sure enough, the pupils voted. A study from the University of Edinburgh showed that a mere 7% of youngsters had not discussed the referendum with anyone. Scotland is now perhaps the most clued-up nation in the West, politically speaking. At 16, Scots come out of school with at least a basic political understanding, which will serve them for many years to come. That’s something I’d like to see more widespread. With political education taking root at an earlier age, we will have a more informed electorate with the ability to make decisions that they could at least try to argue for.

There are, of course, arguments against giving the vote to 16-year-olds. It’s suggested that as the main political parties tend to cater to older voters right now, they will need to dramatically adjust their target audiences. Otherwise, it is argued, young people will become apathetic due to the lack of attention paid to them. Without this shift will the parties have any impetus to change without younger voices calling for it? Party youth wings are also a good example. They lie on the periphery of a party and therefore leading politicians don’t see them and, consequently, the youth vote, as particularly strong or important, which is of course false. The argument for ignoring young people lies in the fact that “no other age group is treated this way”, which seems to me more of an argument against than for. No other age group is treated this way because they can vote, so naturally they will be given more attention. Let’s even that out.

“But I don’t know any 16-year-olds asking for the vote!” I hear the unconvinced reader call. That, frankly, is neither here nor there. It’s easy enough to discover stories of a startling number of women who were relatively ambivalent about their voting rights up to suffrage success, with some even campaigning against enfranchisement. Yet to think of anything other than universal suffrage now seems rightly ridiculous.

Refraining from giving young people the vote says: “You can’t be trusted.” Perhaps next year after the general election, MPs will be forced to look at this issue once again. Many Conservative MPs are against giving the vote to under-18s, but maybe more lobbying will help change their minds. Treat people like adults and they will act like adults, especially when it comes to voting. Hopefully, then, though old Facebook updates will inevitably remain embarrassing, perhaps the political updates of future youth will have more merit than mine.

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