The Case for Votes at 16

Christians on the Left member and volunteer Matthew Judson sets out a case for extending the franchise to 16.

The word democracy comes from two Greek words meaning for people (‘demos’) and power (‘kratos’). Thus a democracy is a state in which power belongs to the people. Throughout its history, the institution of democracy has gradually emerged as the political system which best empowers citizens, creates equality and provides accountable government. At the very least it is generally accepted in our society as ‘the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’, in the words of Winston Churchill[1]. 

o-DEMOCRACY-facebook.jpgThe power of democracy lies in the fact that it is inclusive, enabling as many people as possible to have a say in the way the country is run (or at least in who runs it). Over time, British democracy has become progressively more inclusive to keep up with social attitudes and to remain relevant. This meant giving votes to working class men in 1867, to women in 1918 and to 18-year-olds in 1969. On each occasion, the decision to extend the franchise has been vindicated by the subsequent voter engagement and the positive pressure on politicians to represent a greater diversity of constituents. Christians on the Left believes it is time for the franchise to be extended again, this time to include those aged 16 and 17.

At the age of 16, a British teenager can be formally employed, give sexual consent, join the army, marry and become a company director. It surely violates the very essence of democracy for anyone to be in a situation where they can pay tax to their government, be convicted of a criminal offence and even be armed in their nation’s defence but be denied any say in who holds political power over them. Our rights must reflect our responsibilities, and the responsibilities given to 16-year-olds should therefore be matched by the right to exercise our most fundamental civil right.

Another benefit of votes for 16-year-olds would be to ensure that the voices of young people are heard in political debates. The UK faces big decisions about its future direction in the wake of Brexit which will affect our economy and society for decades to come. Intergenerational inequality, which has increased sharply since the financial crisis, has become a major problem in our society: the IFS estimates that younger generations will ‘have less wealth at each point in life than earlier generations’[2]; the Resolution Foundation calculates that pensioners have a higher average income than working-age people for the first time ever[3]; the ONS shows that home ownership among young people is far lower than it was for previous generations at the same age[4].

This means it is more important than ever that the voices of young people are heard loudly and clearly by those in power. Refusing to give millions of them a voice at the ballot box creates a self-perpetuating vicious cycle in which politicians ignore the needs and wants of youngsters, who then disengage from the democratic process, further providing an incentive for politicians to ignore them. Once young people believe that their votes make no difference it is hard to persuade them to vote. The fact that most people’s first chance to vote comes at a profoundly unsettled point in their lives further discourages political engagement, and leads to a habit of non-voting._77692973_023948902.jpg

The fact that voter turnout among the young is consistently significantly lower than among older voters is evidence of the damaging effects of this cycle. Giving young people a tangible stake in the political process while they are still in education is one way in which this cycle can be broken. The energy and enthusiasm displayed by teenagers in the Scottish referendum (when 16 and 17 year olds were given a voice) is something we should aim to encourage in future votes, not shut down.

A significant uptick in voter turnout among those aged 18 to 24 was one of the most positive observations from the 2017 election: Ipsos MORI reported turnout of 54%, an increase of 16 percentage points compared to 2015[5]. It is important to build on this momentum by taking step which encourage rather than discourage engagement and turnout among young people.

Extended the franchise to more young people must go hand-in-hand with a better standard of civics education. This means not just basic information about how the architecture of the state works but an overview of party politics and a chance to consider and debate crucial political, ethical and economic issues. Initiatives such as the UK Youth Parliament are welcome, and would be even more transformative if they were extended in scope and reach.

36618_all_028_04.jpgWhile these arguments are compelling in themselves, Christians on the Left exists to bring a distinctive approach to political issues. It is our belief that all humans are created equal in the image of God (see Genesis 1:26) which drives our desire to see equity in society. Our assurance of the all-embracing love of God (see, for example, Galatians 3:28) lies behind our passion for inclusive institutions. And the Bible’s inspirational stories of God bringing his plans to fruition through young people and teenagers – characters including Joseph, David, Esther, Mary and Timothy and even children as young as Namaan’s servant girl and the boy willing to give Jesus his lunch – instil an aspiration to see the young people of today play a full role in society. In keeping with the famous words of 1 Timothy 4:12, when Paul implores his mentee “don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity”, we believe God’s heart is to empower young people. That mission extends to the political realm.

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If our society is to be truly democratic, it should include as many people as possible in the decision-making process. The right to vote is a civil right, and it should not be denied to young people who have a real stake in the nation’s future. Extending the right to vote to those aged 16 would be consistent with the responsibilities they already carry. It would ensure their voices are heard in vital political debates. And it would go a long way to foster healthy political engagement and participation at all levels. It is for these reasons that Christians on the Left supports the lowering of the voting age to sixteen.

Our Conference fringe event, supported by the Electoral Reform Society, will take place on Monday 24 September, 8pm at St Paul's Church, West Street, Brighton.

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commented 2017-08-05 19:41:03 +0100 · Flag
I totally agree. A 16 year old can also marry. It might still e with parental consent but is another reason not to deny a 16 year old the right and responsibility of voting.





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