CLARE FOGES: When I was 16, I knew more about Oasis and Blur than pensions or defence. That’s why Labour’s bid to give teenagers the vote is just cynical baloney
Politicians: brush up on your slang, sign up to TikTok and get down with the kids, now!
Because if Labour gets its way, in the coming years our electorate will widen to include 1.5 million 16-and-17-year-olds.
A new report from the party’s National Policy Forum contains plans to allow 16-year-olds to vote. This would be the most significant change to the franchise since 1969, when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.
Of course, the proposal is prefaced with the usual rhetoric. It will, according to the report, make ‘young people feel empowered’ and allow them to ‘engage in our democratic processes’.
Cynical baloney. There is, of course, only one reason why Labour wants to lower the voting age. It has nothing to do with ’empowerment’ – and everything to do with winning elections. For those 1.5 million new voters are highly likely to vote Left.
If Labour gets its way, in the coming years our electorate will widen to include 1.5 million 16-and-17-year-olds. Pictured: Sir Keir Starmer speaks during Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday
As the old saying, variously attributed to Churchill, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George, goes: ‘Any man who is not a socialist at age 20 has no heart. Any man who is still a socialist at age 40 has no head.’ And it’s true – our political allegiances do tend to switch over time – although, alarmingly for the Tories, many millennials do not seem to be moving towards the Right as they progress through their thirties.
Among 18 to 24-year-olds, Labour currently enjoys a 43 per cent poll lead over the Conservatives (57 to 14). Among those over 65, the Tories are polling 19 per cent ahead of Labour (42 to 23).
Given the 1.5 million votes up for grabs, Labour could be looking at decades in government if it pulls this off.
And it certainly wouldn’t be its first such calculating move. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were accused of widening Labour’s pool of potential voters in three ways: ramping up immigration, swelling the size of the public sector and increasing the numbers on benefits.
Since immigrants, public-sector workers and benefit recipients are all more likely to vote for a party on the Left, Labour ensured these groups were boosted before they went to the polling booth. Now Sir Keir Starmer seems to be borrowing from this playbook.
READ MORE: Labour will give children aged just 16 the vote if they win the next general election, blueprint for manifesto confirms
The allure of Left-wing politics to the young is obvious. Idealistic, they believe that great changes can and should be made to society, that politics should be revolutionary, that economics should be retilted to favour certain groups.
This can be charming. Life has not toughened their hide yet. But it also makes them prey to simplistic solutions and unrealistic promises.
At the 2017 election, Jeremy Corbyn’s surprisingly strong performance was driven by the highest turnout of young people since 1992.
One of the most eye-catching promises Corbyn made was to make university tuition fees free. Did anyone voting as part of that ‘youthquake’ consider whether the £9.5 billion price tag was affordable, or whether it was fair to expect young people who go straight into work to pay for others’ higher education? I doubt it.
It’s easy to capture the youth vote by making costly promises that would ruin the public finances. ‘We’ll open our borders to anyone who wishes to come here! We’ll double all benefits! Triple our aid budget! Give you grants for your first car, your first home!’
Cue a load of teens marching to the polling booth, unbothered by the small print which reveals that they will be paying for these promises for the rest of their lives.
This is not a diatribe against the ‘youth of today’ – merely a realistic observation that at a young age we tend to view things more simply. Life is a journey from innocence to experience, ignorance to knowledge.
A new report from the party’s National Policy Forum contains plans to allow 16-year-olds to vote (file image)
Of course, there are some 16-year-olds who can give you their expert view on what our debt-to-GDP ratio should be. But many are, understandably, more preoccupied with when they can get their nose pierced or how they can convince their parents to let them go to Glastonbury.
At 16 or 17, you have not accrued the life experiences needed to inform your vote. You haven’t juggled household finances, or formed much of an opinion on the workings of the health service – let alone used it much – or learned that there’s no such thing as a free lunch because, well, most of your lunches have been free.
At 16, I had stronger opinions about Oasis being superior to Blur than on the state pension or defence expenditure. Nevertheless, I stood as the Labour candidate in my school election, driven by a vague conviction that Tories were mean and old-fashioned while those of us wearing the red rosette were glamorous crusaders for justice and fairness.
Giving votes to 16 and 17-year-olds would always have been a bad idea, but in the age of social media it is a disastrous one. Glued to their smartphones, teenagers are now subject to unprecedented peer pressure and groupthink. The pied pipers of TikTok and Instagram corral impressionable young people daily into doing preposterous, dangerous and even criminal things. Is it that hard to imagine them whipping up their followers to vote the way they tell them to?
READ MORE: Starmer faces a backlash from his own party last night for Labour’s controversial plans to let 16-year-olds vote in General Elections
In 2015 and 2019, the voting age in Scotland and Wales was lowered to 16 for devolved and local elections – and some argue it has already benefited their Left-wing ruling parties. Yet in the vast majority of countries around the world, the minimum voting age is 18, and for good reason.
Sixteen-year-olds are not allowed to fight on the frontline for their country. They cannot marry, learn to drive, serve on a jury, drink alcohol, take out a mortgage or hold a licence for all manner of things. If you commit a crime at 16 or 17, your punishment will be more lenient than if an adult had committed a similar crime. At 16 or 17 – if you are still in full-time education – your parents can still claim Child Benefit.
Some 16-year-olds pay tax, goes the counter argument. True, but paying tax does not give you an automatic right to vote. Even Sir Keir Starmer has drawn the line at giving tax-paying EU citizens voting rights in general elections. Besides, if paying tax is your passport to the polling booth, will those on benefits for life be denied a vote?
A mountain of research shows teenage brains have yet to reach full maturity. Our brains are still maturing throughout our teens and into our twenties – which is a compelling argument to raise the voting age to 21.
By then, the average voter will have more life experience; more experience of work, paying bills, juggling the responsibilities of adult life.
Still, we can expect Labour to fight hard for this policy, which equates to a free pass for term after term in government.
Thank goodness one Labour MP has had the guts to speak out about this arrant opportunism. Graham Stringer, Member for Blackley and Broughton, believes that ‘most youngsters at 16 are not mature enough’ to vote.
He says: ‘I’m afraid that were the Labour leader to put this forward, it would smack of party political self-interest on the basis that young people are more likely to vote Labour or Liberal Democrat than Conservative.’
Indeed. Lowering the voting age to 16 would fundamentally alter the electorate forever, ushering in the possibility of a one-party state. We can only hope that sense, and not cynicism, prevails.
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