The question of adulthood – votes for 16-year olds

While the majority of Labour’s manifesto for 2015 remains shrouded in mystery, one commitment which is almost certain to make it is a pledge to lower the voting age to sixteen. Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan, unveiling the policy earlier this year, said that lowering the voting age would tackle “the public’s malaise towards all things political”. However, Khan’s logic – that the extension of electoral franchise to younger voters will reinvigorate participation in the democratic process – is an argument I find unconvincing. Not only is the move being used as a tool of the centre-left parties (including Labour and the SNP) to garner support from the young, but lowering the voting age goes against every demographic trend in the UK and before looking at the issue, we should determine at what age a person can be considered an adult.

I would agree that voter apathy is an issue which needs to be addressed, in particular young people feel disillusioned with the political system. However, I fail to understand how extending the franchise will address apathy more widely, or whether the exclusion of 16 and 17 year olds from the electorate is an injustice that needs to be corrected. Current demographic trends indicate that people are embracing adulthood at a slower pace than ever before. A greater proportion of people in their late teens and twenties are living with their parents, the average age of marriage is at a record high and people are increasingly putting off having children until later. People’s first full-time jobs also come at a much later age than ever before.

Proponents of a lower voting age have argued that from the age of sixteen, citizens can take on responsibilities which necessitate their inclusion in the electorate. Labour MP Sarah Champion led an adjournment debate on the subject of votes for 16 year olds in the House of Commons this year. She mentioned that 16year olds could join the armed forces, obtain welfare benefits and pay income tax. However, while this is true, it is only true for a minority. The vast majority of this age group continue in full-time education to at least the age of 18, and therefore avoid embarking on full-time employment, the payment of income tax and the additional responsibilities a full-time job carries with it. While proponents are correct in highlighting that 16-year olds can marry or join the armed forces, they forget that parental permission is still mandatory until the age of 18.

It’s not just responsibility which should dictate when a person should be allowed to vote, maturity must be a factor as well. We need to ask ourselves when we would consider a person mature enough the make a decision on who should govern the country. Most people would agree that between the ages of 16 and 18 individuals are still going through very formative years. From experience and social studies, we know that peer pressure remains a large influence in decision-making at these ages. Despite this, I would agree with proponents – that there are many 16 year olds who could make a more reasoned choice than most adults. But then again I would also argue that you could also find many 14 year olds who could make a more reasoned choice than most adults. Should we therefore lower the voting age to 14?

The issue of voting age should not be about progressiveness or social justice, but about what age society regards someone as an adult. I believe that responsibilities and maturity are not great enough at the age of 16 to warrant the vote. However, I would also advocate that we look at how the law is applied to individuals. The UK justice system doesn’t consider someone adult until the age of 18, why therefore should it be different for voting?