Kev's Column: Sweet Sixteen?

This week the Labour Party headed to Brighton and in this week’s Kev's Column I take a look at their suggestion of reducing the voting age to 16:

The Labour Party Conference certainly divided opinion as Ed Miliband’s speech was very much a marmite affair for the press, they either loved it or loathed it.

On a number issues Labour have now clearly moved some distance to the left of the position they occupied under Tony Blair. That said much of what remains of their fiscal policy still envisages that many of the coalition’s spending cuts will be maintained, just no detail as to which ones. On the eve of their conference figures from the Treasury suggested Labour had racked up a bill of nearly £28bn of unfunded spending commitments since June alone, leaving real questions as to what taxes would rise to meet this bill or if the pledges would just be ignored if they were in Government after May 2015.

Yet as said last week my goal is to do something a bit different in Kev’s Column for the conference season, by highlighting something I agreed with, rather than just adding to the point scoring. Whilst I agreed with Ed Miliband highlighting the impact of the rise in energy prices and expressing concerns about the way this market operates, his solution was overly simplistic and contained serious flaws. Therefore the one I have gone with is the suggestion that sweet sixteen should become the new voting age.

The last time the voting age was the subject of any serious debate was back in the 1960’s when my Father, along with those born between 1949 and 1952, was able to vote in the 1970 General Election because Harold Wilson’s Government had reduced the age from 21 to 18. Whilst the voting age fell the age to be a candidate in local or general elections remained at 21 until only a few years ago when it also fell to 18. The more recent discussion of whether to change the voting age has been spurred by the fact that 16 year olds will be allowed to vote in next year’s Independence Referendum in Scotland.

There are those who argue that 16 year olds are not mature enough to make a decision how to vote or that they do not have enough understanding of the political process. Yet all the major political parties regularly accept new members aged 16 or 17, with many showing a maturity well beyond their years and quickly becoming relatively senior in the local party. As members they also play a part in candidate selection, for the very elections they are deemed too young to vote in.

On a personal level I joined the Young Conservatives when I was 16, having first campaigned for the party at 13. I was not influenced by family as until I joined neither of my Parents had ever been involved politically. I had formed my views from an early age mostly based on my interest in current affairs, what I saw of my family working hard to achieve their goals and my Christian Faith. At the same time one of my friends joined Labour and is still an activist for them, although he has relocated from Devon to Newcastle. It was not argued we were too young to know our minds and were happy to debate with those much older our thoughts on issues of the day.

It is actually the time of my first involvement in politics that taught me to see other parties as people (In some cases friends) you disagreed with, not enemies you were on a mission to destroy no matter what the means. I learned useful lessons about how the system of local government operated from experienced Labour as well as Conservative members. In all this no-one said they thought I was too young to understand, so why not allow me to vote at that age? Likewise as an MP I would never turn away a constituent who wanted to see me or ask for my help merely because they had not reached their 18th birthday.

On its own dropping the voting age is unlikely to provoke a new wave of engagement as the turnout for those aged 18-25 is the lowest of all age groups. Yet if the experience in Scotland is a positive one I would support extending this to England, perhaps starting with local elections, then moving to the General Election in 2020. If, as some argue, those aged 16 are genuinely not interested then we will see that from the turnout in that age group. Any legislation could contain a sunset clause if turnout is truly derisory amongst the newly enfranchised.

Others say that more experience of life is needed to make the decision about who to vote for at an election than a 16 year old has. Yet the vast majority of the electorate will still be aged over 18 and with an aging population many constituencies will actually have a majority of electors aged over 50. There will still be plenty of experience of life in the electorate that turns out if 16 year olds take part alongside their parents and grandparents.

Finally there are those who think dropping the voting age would be handy for their party whilst hindering another. Those tempted to believe that should remember Labour thought the same in the 1960’s about votes at 18. The result? The Conservative Party went on to win the 1970 General Election, closely followed by an 18 year period in Government from 1979-1997. Altering the franchise does not change the political landscape, but it could help get more involved.

That is all for this week, next week I will be in Manchester for the Conservative Party Conference and will be discussing the highlights in my next Kev’s Column.