How to reduce turnout

HAVE we really thought through this “votes at 16” issue?

On the only recent occasion when the Commons was given a vote on this subject – on a Ten Minute Rule Motion – I voted against. As a colleague at the time observed: “I’ll support votes at 16 when half a million 15- to 17-year-olds march on parliament demanding it.”

In fact, I’ve had virtually no representations from constituents asking me to support this measure. It’s one of those issues which, when put before people, will usually ellicit a positive response. But it’s certainly not an issue that young people, unprompted, will volunteer as an issue important to them.

And the reason all this is important is this: if 16 and 17-year-olds are to be given the vote, I worry that the most significant effect will be a huge increase in the number of “voters” who don’t vote.

I can almost hear the arguments winging their way towards me even as you read this: “Why shouldn’t they be allowed to vote when they can join the army/buy alcohol/have sex/pay tax, etc?” (And I say “they” rather than “we” because this is a change which is almost invariably promoted by those who have already reached the age of majority, rather by those who might actually benefit from it.)

I think it rather unlikely that we will ever have a single age at which individuals attain all these rights. In the meantime, the argument for votes at 16 has not yet been made. If there are powerful arguments in favour, I haven’t heard them yet.

But perhaps I will soon, because Labour’s National Policy Forum has decided in favour, and it will now be put to national conference. It’s a debate I’ll be interested in listening to.

But just because something can be changed, it doesn’t necessarily mean it should be.



Filed under Labour, Parliament, Politics

24 responses to “How to reduce turnout

  1. Tom,

    I couldn’t agree more.

    It’s one of those issues that always seems to be there but largely not promoted by young people themselves (although that is not to say that no-one under 18 ever argues for this).

    At the end of the day it’s a ultimately a random choice. The figure could be set at 17, 18, 21 or 9 for that matter. What should lie behind this is the accepted age at which people ‘become’ adults.

    I think that most people (and most countries for that matter) accept that figure as being 18. At that stage people will certainly have left school and entered adulthood, whether through employment or further education.

    Of course some people leave school before this but even then a large portion of them go into training/apprenticeships rather than full ‘adult life’.

    My one slight concern on this issue relates to the ‘no taxation without representation’ argument. But I would personally amend this by changing the tax system towards under-18s, who are likely to earn less than most anyway, not least because of a lower minimum wage rate.

    I actually write an extended piece on this a while ago. If you’re interested the link’s below.

  2. The best argument for giving 16 & 17 year-olds the vote is not that it’s some kind of right they deserve or are demanding. It’s not that it’s somehow inconsistent because they can die for their country or kill themselves with cancer sticks but can’t put a cross in a box.

    It’s the same logic expressed by an indie pub that serves kids when they can’t get served at the major chain pubs – they want them to form habits early on so they keep going there when they’ve got £40 to blow at the weekend instead of a tenner. If they do it once because they can when they’re young, they’re more likely to do it again when they’re older. That might seem cynical, but frankly if in the long-term it helps reduce declining turnout then I don’t care.

  3. Johnny Norfolk

    I agree with you. I think it was that Ms Harman that started it thinking that most young people vote labour, before they change later when they realise what a mess they get us in.

  4. Mrs Blogs

    Though no historian, i vaguely recall that historically, whenever it is proposed that some new group -say, the ‘lower orders’ and even women, be admitted to the suffrage one of the arguments against is said group is too ignorant or emotional to exercise such a privilege in a way that is good for the country. For example, if turkeys were rational creatures they would almost certainly not vote for christmas but since they are dumb animals they might vote for their own slaughter.

    Those arguing in favour of said group being admitted to the suffrage would make the case that if given the vote said group would become more ‘interested’ -have a stake, be a stakeholder in the modern parlance- and educate themselves, start reading newspapers or reading blogs for example, in preparation for exercising their democratic right. Being given the vote would civilise them.

    Given the newspaper reading habits of most adult voters maybe this argument doesn’t hold.

    Although 16 year olds can work and be taxed perhaps there is something to be said for a period of experiencing being in the adult world before voting. However, as children are the subjects of policy from the moment they are born at what point should they have a say in the policies affecting them. Age 4?

    When the issue of votes for 16 yr olds cropped up recently I quizzed my 19 year old son about it – he thought for a few moments about his peer group and laughed. Nahhh!

    However, I do know some intensely interested and political young people who would make far more thoughtful and judicious voters than their elders and ‘betters’.

    Perhaps those interested enough should be given the choice to vote but we should not get too hung up on the statistics for turnout for voters of this age acknowledging that later in life has enough heavy responsibility that some young people may choose to have a carefree period before they get seriously involved in the democratic process.

    On balance, having carefully weighed up all these arguments I dunno, really.

  5. If a million people marched on London, would the Government change its policy? I think we already know the answer to that one!

    So why then do you expect them to organise and march on London demanding the vote, when they’re currently being warned that if they’re not obedient they will be forcibly detained at home after dark?

    Teenagers are a bit dumb, but they’re not stupid. If they’re to give up doing things they like to do (most of which are illegal) then they expect it to pay off. But a demo is clearly a waste of time.

    However, if you give people real power (even young people) they will exercise it.

    How many new (18-ish) voters in a marginal constituency don’t bother to vote? Tell me that. If it’s less than the rest of the population then you’ve a case. If not, you’re already too old to understand why votes for 16 year-olds is a good idea in an ageing population.

    (There, that’s both research and something to ponder for the weekend!)

    P.S. It was my birthday yesterday and I’m now (wisper it) 41.

  6. Chris' Wills

    I’m shocked, that’s twice in the past few days I’ve agreed with you.

    I’m showing my age I know but, it should have been left at 21. It was lowered to 18 the year I turned 21, bummer that.

    On the lowering it to 17 or 16, the only rational I can think of is that the proposers believe that this age group will vote for them.

    Will the drinking & smoking laws be amended to suit? My guess is no.

    Do most of this age range know what they’ld be voting for? Same question could be asked of the rest of us of course but, they have very little experience of looking after themselves, in the main, and next to no experience of making hard choices.

    Please tell the crazy committee that it is a stupid idea. The ones that can be bothered to vote won’t all vote NuLabor (so no advantage for NuLabor), the majority won’t vote at all.

  7. MichaelC

    Nonsense as usual Tom. – If you lot in Westminster are too intellectually and politically bankrupt to convince young voters to vote Labour then maybe you should be asking why you’re there. After all, all our futures depend on the next generation If the overall turnout drops a couple of points in the short term, that just shows that the PLP is failing to provide a sufficiently attractive programme to appeal to young voters. That’s your challenge – stop moaning and get on with it.

    To my mind, giving votes to 16 and 17 year olds is a necessary corrective to your tendency to treat young people simply as a potentially criminal nuisance – knife wielding thugs, binge-drinking yobs, anti-social elements etc. etc. – this is saying that young people can play a positive role in society – they are valuable citizens with ideas, views and interests that play an essential contribution. If we demonstrate that we value young people – not just in terms of formal political citizenship but also in terms of guaranteeing them a proper minimum wage and rights at work, the opportunities to develop their skills and education etc. then we are in a much stronger position to expect these rights to be matched by the exercising of social responsibility.

    It’s no good just teaching citizenship in the classroom and then denying it in practice. This is one way, but far from the only way, that we can demonstrate that we are prepared to invest trust in young people. The “Respect” agenda needs to cut both ways.

  8. Auntie Flo'

    I totally agree with you. Just as there should be no taxation without representation, there should be no representation without taxation.

    Your government want young people to continue at school, rewarded for doing so by the taxpayer. Brown can’t have it all ways. And before someone says this excludes sick and unemployed people from democracy, no it doesn’t.

  9. Andrew F

    I’m 17. I’d like to vote. Could you please explain why I shouldn’t be allowed to?

    Your argument seems to centre on the idea that there is much disengagement among teenagers. Well, you may well be right; but there is also huge amounts of disengagement in adults (or 18+s).

    I read newspapers, I read blogs, I debate, I’m a member of a political party, I’ve worked in my MP’s office: my political engagement is a lot stronger than the average adult’s. Once you start distributing liberties on the basis of how you suppose people will choose to use them, you hit very choppy moral waters.

    Ignorance and apathy transcend age barriers – as do knowledge and enthusiasm.

  10. They’re putting the cart before the horse. Instead of asking – ‘what’s the meaning of the age of political responsibility ? is it the same as adulthood ? does adulthood imply independence ?’ they’re asking ‘how can we engage the young in politics’ and ‘how can we increase our vote ?’.

    40 years ago it was much simpler. 21 was adult, full stop. The day you became entitled to vote was the day you became liable to be sent to an adult prison (although some Borstals took people up to 23), the day (pre-67) when you could be hung for murder. I’m not sure what the laws were regarding student grants – whether a 21 year old (say at medical school) with rich parents got less of a grant, but except for medics most education was over by 21, so the question of still being dependent didn’t apply.

    Lowering the voting age to 18 started to create anomalies – different responsibilities at different ages. Criminals under 21 had previously been dealt with as ‘Young Offenders’, over 21 as ‘Adult offenders’, but 18-20 year olds continued not to be dealt with as adults despite the lowering of the voting age, and the income of parents was taken into account when deciding on the level of maintenance grants for students.

    Now we have a host of laws restricting the activities of 16 to 18 year olds – for what may be considered good reasons. They can’t buy cigarettes, alcohol, knives, guns, fireworks. And the Goverenment are planning to make school attendance compulsory for them – with their parents going to jail if they don’t go. EMA and other allowances are based on parental income – implicitly declaring the child to be dependent on their parents.

    How does this square with giving them the vote at 16 ? I’d suggest it doesn’t. The policy wonks seem to be engaged in a process of lowering the age of political responsibility while simultaneously raising the age of responsibility for everything else.

    A consistent approach to votes at 16 would be to :

    a) abolish educational conscription – how dare you force a 16 year old adult to attend school

    b) adult prisons for 16 year old criminals.

    c) adult sentences likewise

    d) no compulsory parental contributions for education or anything else. Parental income not to be taken into account when assessing grants etc. like the ‘staying at school’ grant (ECA ?) . Remember, these are independent adults you’re talking about. The 16 year old child of a millionaire and the 16 year old child from a council house both have zero income and should both get that £30 a week. They should also get full grants at university.

    e) no more nonsense about fining parents for what their children do

    f) that law about adults in authority fiddling with their 16 year old (adult !) charges needs to go. And 16 year olds will be able to buy pornography. And act in it. And buy cigarettes. And fireworks. And knives. And alcohol. And air rifles. And ammunition.

    Now I think the above sounds crazy. And I think votes at 16 are crazy.

  11. Andrew F


    And I think using conscripted education as a reason why we shouldn’t be allowed to vote is crazy. The state should be allowed to force a young person to attend a building on every weekday, but give them no democratic means to decide what happens there?

    Oh, and no representation without taxation. Funny, because my seventeen-year-old friend pays quite a lot of taxation on the money he earns in the army. ut it’s not really financially viable for most of us to become earners, given the anti-youth minimum wage legislation that adults imposed on us.

    Dependence on adults? I know a fair few kids and pay rent, thank you very much – and a fair few sixteen-year-olds care for sick parents. And I hate to break it to you, but there aren’t any compulsory payments towards education from parents.

    I fail to see what university-funding has to do with votes at 16, since almost everyone (the first year in Scotland excluded) who attends university is 18 or older.

    Equal sentencing!? You must be joking. Young people don’t even have to be convicted in order to face punishment. ASBOs see to that.

    As for knives and guns, I’m pretty sure I’d rather that adults couldn’t purchase them either. Not that the foremost really matters, when you can stroll onto the streets with a kitchen knife.

    Cigarettes? Well, here I really must use an armed-forced analogy: it’s fine for sixteen year olds to sign themselves up for Afghanistan and Iraq, but expose themselves to the possibility of cancer at some indeterminate point in the future!?

    Alcohol we buy and consume already. I can see a litre of vodka from here on my bed.

    The kiddy-fiddling law is pretty unenforceable, so doesn’t offer us much protection at all.

    So, al in all, that was a load of crap.

  12. Tut, tut, the language used by teenagers these days…

  13. Chris Gale

    In my work in animal welfare over the years it has been young people who have been the most enthused /knowledgeable and active.
    The question is not should they be given the vote at 16, its why have they not been given it before?

    You should be addressing why people don’t vote. Why should half a million people have to march on Parliament to demand something? Do you base every decision in this way? We are a progressive party and this is a no brainer.

  14. I’m sure you knew this already Chris, but the comment from a colleague was obviously not intended to mean that policies are only enacted once half a million people march on parliament. He was simply pointing out that, concern for animals notwithstanding, there’s very little evidence that the enthusiasm among older people for votes at 16 is matched by 16- and 17-year-olds.

  15. MichaelC

    Plenty of women opposed female suffrage. That doesn’t mean it was wrong in principle. Maybe if MPs were thought to be doing a better job, young people might be more keen on having a vote. That’s a vicious circle.

  16. Martin Cullip

    “Once you start distributing liberties on the basis of how you suppose people will choose to use them, you hit very choppy moral waters.”

    I couldn’t agree more Andrew F 😉

    And your well-argued common sense is an example of the 16-18 age group, perhaps the HoC should be filled with youngsters instead of the weird, detached and delusionarily idealistic lot that currently reside there.

  17. Chris Gale

    The problem is that our system creeks with all its Victorian pomposity and establishment/aristocracy entrails all over the place. It needs updating to make it worthy of the 21st Century,not some throwback to the 19th.

  18. Mrs Blogs

    Am sure you’ve covered all this already but as far as the proposals about education OR training up to the age of 18:

    The Education & Skills Bill proposed to raise the education and training participation age to 17 from 2013 and 18 from 2015.

    This is not the same as raising the school leaving age.
    The aim is that all young people will continue to participate in education OR TRAINING post-16.

    This can be in a number of ways, including:

    Full-time education, such as in school or in college – a large majority do this already.

    Work-based learning, such as an apprenticeship; or

    Part-time education or training, if they are employed, self-employed or volunteering more than 20 hours a week.

    Note the mention of work and employment here.

    If you read the Bill you will find the proposals aren’t what they have been portrayed as when people say it is forcibly keeping kids in SCHOOL til 18.

    read the research report here…/DCSF- RR012.pdf

    “Although the proposal is
    for compulsory participation, the Green Paper acknowledges that it will be better to encourage young people to participate of their own free will. The main challenge, therefore, is to make young people want to stay in post-16 education or training.”

  19. Mrs Blogs

    sorry that link should have been:

    or look though all good search engines for
    Raising the Participation Age in
    Education and Training to 18
    Review of Existing Evidence of the
    Benefits and Challenges
    Thomas Spielhofer, Matt Walker, Kerensa Gagg
    Sandie Schagen and Sharon O’Donnell
    National Foundation for Educational Research

  20. Andrew F : “The state should be allowed to force a young person to attend a building on every weekday, but give them no democratic means to decide what happens there?”

    Well, yes. That’s exactly what I believe. I would have hoped you would too. Otherwise you’re arguing for the voting age to be reduced to 5 – or less, if HMG get their compulsory nurseries sorted.

    (To be pedantic, current law doesn’t say you HAVE to go to school – just that you have to be receiving an education).

    Whatever you’re studying it sure isn’t logic.

    ASBOs can be handed out (and have been) to people of all ages, not just ‘the youth’. And I didn’t mention taxation, so I don’t know where that comes in.

    “Alcohol we buy and consume already”

    You’re breaking the law then. When you add in the substitution of invective for argument, you’re not really a good advertisement for your cause.

  21. dreamingspire

    Auntie Flo’ didn’t get it right: it is proposed that young people continue with training until age 18 – but that can include taking a job if it links properly with formal training courses. Sadly, the majority of the media reports didn’t explain that. More sadly, the government failed to persuade the media to correct their omissions and accept that they should report accurately and completely.

  22. Auntie Flo'


    Auntie Flo’ didn’t get it right: it is proposed that young people continue with training until age 18 – but that can include taking a job if it links properly with formal training courses.

    Where are these job linked to training courses to come from, dreamingspire? Indeed, where are these jobs to come from?

    The latest REC employment survey, which uses a wide range of indices of employment and opportunities for work shows UK’s job market is severely weakened and in decline.

    Do you have any idea how hard it is for young people – even in a healthy job market – to get jobs these days? As an employer, I have rarely known a time when I have had so many job applications from young people who are unable to get work. Little wonder that some young people get into trouble, what else do they have to do and what sort of future do they have to look forward to?

    Part of the problem is that employers have so many mature, experienced overseas candidates with an exemplary work ethic applying for every job vacancy.

    I’m not suggesting here that the work ethic of overseas staff is better than ours in UK. If British staff migrated overseas for a few years with the express intention of earning as much as possible as quickly as possible and were paid 4-5 times what they’d ever earned in their lives, they’d work their socks off for it too.

    There’s also less staff mobility at present as those with jobs are more rightly nervous of changing job in the current slow down.

    Many employers I know have it in their heads that the per capita output of experienced candidates will normally far outstrip the productivity of average 16-18 year olds.

    Another factor is employers’ growing responsiblities for the health and safety of their staff and their consequent heavier insurance burden. This makes many employers nervous of engaging young staff because, as ROSPA states:

    “For many young people, the world of work is often a strange and confusing place. Inexperience and lack of trained judgement leaves them more at risk from accidents and damage to their health. ”

    We ugently need our government to address this. Here’s what the economist says about it this month:

    “As the economic outlook darkens, unemployment looks set to jump… On previous form, young people will be hit particularly hard since they find it tougher to get and keep jobs when growth falters.”

  23. Chris


    Isn’t the logical conclusion of your argument re turnout, that voting should be compulsary (which I agree with) and that anyone who doesn’t vote should have their vote taken away from them (which i don’t)?

    It reminds me a bit of a Party official I was debating with some years ago over whether Young Labour members should be allowed to elect their own NEC Rep by OMOV (as opposed to it going to those who had the time/ money/ inclination to go to Young Labour Conference). He actually said to me “just because you give people a vote doesn’t mean they’ll use it, so we shouldn’t give it to them!”

  24. I see your point. It is still the case though that you get sixteen and seventeen year olds serving in the armed forces. There should at least be a reform that serving soldiers should be allowed to vote, regardless of their age.

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