Thursday, 24 January 2013

Votes for All... (well, from 16 anyway...)

Can you remember the first time you voted? 

The trip to the local school, library, church or scout hall. Nervously standing in line for with your polling card, waiting for your name to be checked and the ballot issued. Going into the age-old wooden booths and marking your cross with a pencil on the end of a string (and not before reading and re-reading the instructions at the top of the paper). Folding the paper, and posting it in the box. Leaving the station with a sense of - of what? Satisfaction and elation? Relief? Achievement?... A sense of maturity and engagement with civic society.

If you are anything like me, you will still love this part of the democratic process. Even though the done thing amongst political activists is to vote by post (as this ensures more time for campaigning), I really don't want to give up the positive action of going to the polling station and casting my vote in person. The one time I did use a postal vote, I found the process less symbolic. (Ironically, it was the one time I voted for a winning candidate in a Parliamentary election!)

Can you remember what age you were for that first General Election? Did you just reply "18" automatically , or did you stop to work it out? The chances are, you were around 20-21 the first time you had a vote in a general election, if not older. If I hadn't been sent a polling card for the April 1992 election (when I was 17), I'd have been 22 and a half the first time I voted in General Election.

Now I'm a politically interested person so I was never going to not use my franchise. But there are many who have no interest in politics - especially once they have left school and moved into a real world where idealism gives way to cynicism. And that's fine, to a point - we can't all be politically nerdy - but engagement is to be preferred to apathy; and this could be engendered in school if pupils thought they could vote in real elections and not just mock exercises.

Tomorrow, Bristol West's Liberal Democrat MP, Stephen Williams will move a resolution in the House of Commons on reducing the voting age to 16;  a move he has blogged about here. (There has also been a Private Members Bill introduced in the Lords by Lib Dem peer Lord Tyler.)

Extending the franchise to 16 year old's could help build a culture of involvement as school pupils engaging with the issues in school. Combined with the rise in the school leaving age to 18, and fixed parliamentary terms of 5 years, around half of those eligible to vote for the first time will be at school, with the rest having relatively recently left. Giving them a chance to vote for real is surely preferable to letting them move into the rest of their lives and confining school political exercises to yearbooks and memory.

16 year old's a quite old enough to examine he issues and think through the implications of policies. There are quite capable of interpreting media messages and understanding political philosophies. What they may lack - or lose when they leave school and it's structured environment - is the impetus to look into the options and exercise their vote.

There are those who say this is a cynical Liberal ploy aimed at garnering the votes of the (small-l) liberal young. There are others who cast doubt on the maturity of young men and woman and their ability to make reasoned judgements on the merits of candidates and Parties. There are those who say that a list including the ability to have sex legally, marry, join the army, work full time & pay the corresponding taxes and do a host of other things that minors can't shouldn't be extended to include the democratic franchise.

As a rule, these and other arguments against votes at sixteen are weak, at best. On the flip-side, granting votes at sixteen could entrench involvement in civic society in a new generation; carrying involvement in school democracy and mock elections to the Ballot Box, Westminster and beyond.

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1 comment:

Stephen Glenn said...

Yes I can remember the first time I voted. It was for the first set of elections I encountered at University. I actually had already served as a campaign manager for a Sabbatical election before I voted in my first Westminster election.

The reason was that I turned 18 in September of 1987, and Maggie went to the country in the Spring rather than hold off until the Autumn. Therefore I had made my first conference speech, run my first election campaign, stood as a candidate all before I was allowed to vote for my MP. Indeed I should also have graduated, and almost represented my country at athletics before I voted.