Reducing the minimum voting age will promote active citizenship – but how far should we go?

Votes for six-year-olds? Is this a joke?! Actually, once you disabuse yourself of the notion that the year 2 class at your local primary school will somehow have the casting vote on who the next prime minister is — of course they won’t — there is a case to be heard for a radical extension of the right to vote to enfranchise at least some children, as Professor David Runciman shows in his stimulating recent essay in The Guardian. More palatable to the political taste buds, perhaps, is the idea of a reduction of two years in the minimum voting age, which both Scotland and Wales have now introduced for local and devolved elections. And it doesn’t feel foolhardy to write that reducing the voting age to 16 for all UK elections is now a question of ‘when’ and no longer of ‘if’. Indeed, more intriguing is to speculate on which political party will be in government in Westminster when it eventually happens. At a time when trust in the political process is low across the world, it is more important than ever that young people are able and encouraged to play their part as active, informed and responsible citizens.

David Runciman is professor of politics at Cambridge University. His essay Votes for children! is a recent Guardian Long Read, the first in a series entitled Reconstruction after Covid. His thinking is based not, as you might initially guess, around the need to improve political education in schools — the idea that it will make lessons in politics or citizenship more meaningful to children if they have a vote — but on arguments about justice and democracy.

He makes a powerful case that the current political system is heavily stacked against young people — a combination of demography and geography. Is it any surprise, then, that many don’t bother to vote?

…in any society where the middle-aged and elderly are the dominant economic and political blocs, their interests predominate … Pensions will get protected while student debt goes unaddressed. The interests of mortgage payers will be prioritised over the interests of renters. A country in which more than 70% of the under-30s voted to remain in the EU will still choose to leave. Once the old outnumber the young, the political divisions between them will grow.

from Professor David Runciman, Votes for children!

Runciman also tackles counter-arguments relating to children’s competence — “we are applying standards to children that we have given up applying to anyone else” — their susceptibility to outside influence, and the need to ‘protect’ them from the adult world for as long as possible. He then makes the democratic case for the enfranchisement of children and outlines potential benefits of such a reform:

Giving children the vote would not let children control the future – the adults would still be in charge. But it could invigorate our democracy, improve it, vary it, leave it a little less ossified, a little less predictable, a little less stale.

from Professor David Runciman, Votes for children!

Professor Runciman’s essay is well worth the 30 minutes or so it takes to read. The best blue-sky thinking makes us re-examine even the things we take for granted — and that is no bad thing. His proposal will never fly, of course; as an academic and political philosopher, the professor is able to grapple with arguments that no mainstream politician would ever dare touch. Rather less controversial — though, Runciman argues, actually more open to the charge of gerrymandering — is the idea of lowering the minimum voting age across the UK by two years.

The Votes at 16 coalition campaigns for 16- and 17-year-olds to be able to vote in all UK public elections. The list of organisations who back the coalition is striking — from the Association for Citizenship Teaching to Barnardo’s and from the Children’s Society to the civil liberties organisation Liberty.

There is a fairness argument that the Votes at 16 campaign certainly doesn’t ignore – the long list of legal rights and responsibilities which extend to a young person from the age of 16, from paying income tax and National Insurance to starting a family, joining the armed forces and giving full consent to medical treatment.

But, according to their website, the campaign believes that lowering the voting age will:

  • engage 16- and 17-year-olds at the ballot who hold many responsibilities in our society
  • empower 16- and 17-year-olds, through a democratic right, to influence decisions that will define their future
  • inspire young people to get involved in our democracy

In our blog Political literacy needs to be more than just a curriculum add-on, we argued that at a time when trust in the political process is low across large parts of the world, “citizenship education — political literacy — is more important than ever so that young people can play their part as active, informed and responsible citizens.”

A cohesive society, founded on strong communities, needs people to be politically literate and actively engaged as citizens. This means that we need to:

  • help children to understand how society, and particularly the political process in their country, functions
  • show children how to get involved and become active participants in their community and/or civil society more generally, and encourage them to do so
  • promote a culture of shared values based on tolerance, mutual respect and non-violence
  • teach children about their rights and their responsibilities
  • ensure that children are aware of the power, role and importance of the media and develop their ability to assess the accuracy and reliability of the information they consume

Life-Based Learning champions engagement and participation — in other words, active citizenship — helping to build relationships between people and to strengthen communities. We regularly blog about opportunities for individuals, families, schools and community groups to get involved in making a difference — to their own lives, to their communities and to the world around them. And we have highlighted the link between active citizenship and individual wellbeing: “Evidence suggests that active participation — doing something positive, however small — is good for our mental health and wellbeing and helps to dispel the fatalistic notion that individuals are powerless in the face of the great problems and challenges that confront us.”

The image at the head of this article is from the website of the British Youth Council.

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