Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Giving the youth a real voice is a challenge for our politicians - my Catholic Universe column

The whole world over most of us associate growing up with the age at which you are legally allowed to do things for the first time.

How many of us look forward to the day when our son can legally be taken to the pub so their dad can buy them a first pint? We understand that age limits are a right of passage and are designed primarily to prevent youngsters from doing things that as a rule of thumb they don’t have the maturity to handle at an earlier age.

It is, after all, arguably wise to have the legislation in place stopping a thirteen year old from being able to enter a tattoo parlour asking for a permanent imprint of a girlfrend’s name who may well not be a girlfriend just days in the future. The permanence of a tattoo should be commensurate in law with the age, in theory at least, of those armed with the maturity of making such a lifelong decision.

Of course whilst all over the world we have age limits to prevent young people from carrying out various acts not every nation takes the same approach, look no further than the United States of America.

Whilst in Britain we legally allow young people to drink alcohol when they reach the age of 18, a time on these shores at least which is universally accepted as reaching adulthood, in the US you will not be served until reaching the age of 21 and you can expect to be challenged to provide ID until you are far, far older than that age.

A few years ago Britain raised the age at which you can buy tobacco from 16 to 18, whereas last year the state of California raised their own limit to 21, parity with alcohol laws.

We may think that age limits imposed by our American cousins for alcohol and tobacco are draconian but then we are probably equally shocked to realise that in the state of Arkansas you can apply for a learners permit to drive a car at the age of 14. I’m not sure that I know many 14 year olds that  I would be comfortable with getting behind the steering wheel of an extremely dangerous piece of machinery.

The reason I make all of these observations is that for many of us the age that we allow young people to do things for the first time is just something that happens to be; something that we tend to accept without question or consideration.

Why, for example, do we allow a couple to marry with parents permission at the age of sixteen? Why is it not lower as it would have been in biblical times and still is in many parts of the world? Why is it not higher? Arguably this most important and long lasting of all decisions should be prohibited until the participants really do have the maturity to cope with the implications of what they intend to do?

And normally there isn’t a great deal of call for changing our somewhat arbitrary age limits; except in one hugely important area there now is.

Let me ask you a question: at what age do you think young people should be allowed to vote for the first time?

I’m guessing that unless you have really gave the matter some thought, which, let’s face it, most of us haven’t, then your answer to my question was probably 18. You probably thought ‘what’s the age limit now?’, followed by ‘well, that pretty much works’ and plumped for the age which has been accepted for many years.
Except of course the voting age in Britain hasn’t actually been set at 18 for that long. It was in fact reduced from 21 as recently as 1969. It’s less than fifty years since the age of universal suffrage was considered by parliament and reduced and there are many people who believe now is the right time for it to be lowered even further.

On the 26th of June Green Party MP Caroline Lucas tabled an early day motion in the House of Commons. Ms Lucas’ motion states the UK's 1.5 million 16 and 17 year olds are as knowledgeable and competent to vote as other young adults; and calls on the Government to give 16 and 17 year olds a say in their long-term future by legislating to reduce the voting age to 16 for all national and local elections and referendums at the earliest possible opportunity.”

And whilst the motion is unlikely to become law anytime soon the number of members of parliament supporting it is perhaps surprising. At the time of my writing this column 79 MPs from across the political spectrum have signed Lucas’ motion. By the time you read this the number will in all likelihood have risen, it’s going up virtually every day.

But is the suggestion right? Supporters of lowering the voting age will point to the fact that young people can indeed marry, or join the army, or leave school at 16 and voting is arguably no more momentous than any of those life decisions. Many in support of a reduction would argue that if you are old enough to pay tax then you should be old enough to have a say in how it is spent without ever really considering that anyone even buying a packet biscuits is paying tax too.

Supporters point to an historic lack of engagement in the political process from teenagers and argue that effectively making a first vote part of a child’s education would increase participation; and whilst that argument may be true effectively being told you have to vote possibly suggests that you are not ready for such a grown up task.

Undoubtedly there is a move throughout the world to lowering voting ages. In Brazil, Argentina and Austria you can now cast your vote when you turn 16, in other countries voting rights have been lowered for regional and local elections; and although change may not come soon and indeed may not come at all if left to the will of the wider electorate, over 80% of voters rejected a similar proposal in a Luxembourg referendum recently, we all need to consider how changing the electorate also changes the decisions that we make.

Psephologists, the people that study elections, will tell you that more conservative older people delivered a BREXIT decision whereas young people overwhelmingly voted to remain. Consider now that the closeness of the referendum outcome may well have been very different had 16 year olds been allowed to vote.

You will be told in the Scottish Independence referendum, the first experiment in this country of ‘votes at 16’ that largely pro-Indy youth very nearly swayed the outcome to ‘Yes’.

And you will know from just a month ago how Jeremy Corbyn energised young people for the first time in a generation and very nearly delivered a monumental upset. What would have happened if the voting age was lower and a couple of million more young voters could have been motivated?

It is said that, and to be fair given my own life path there must be an element of truth to it, as we get older and arguably more worldly wise we become more conservative. There is an argument at least that if younger people were given the vote you would never see another centre right government again. I don’t know if that is true but there is a credence to the argument.

What is undoubtedly clear however is that for now at least, and whether we reduce voting ages or not, young people are engaged in politics. Jeremy Corbyn and his team have done a first rate, albeit extremely cynical, job of enthusing students up and down the country.

Unless the Tories want to find elections uncomfortably close for a long time to come they are going to have to find a way of putting a positive Conservative argument forward to engage younger generations. Let's face it advocating hard work paying shouldn’t be too difficult a task, should it? 

No comments:

Post a Comment