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The absurd ageism of votes at 16

Credit: Mary Turner/Getty Images

Credit: Mary Turner/Getty Images

October 23, 2018   5 mins

One of the certainties of modern politics is that ideas regarded as barking mad by swathes of the electorate will sooner or later become mainstream among much of our political elite. Someone with a penis can be a woman. Violent crime should be treated as a public health issue. There really is a ‘war on drugs’, and we must end it.

None of these things are supported to any significant degree by the populace, nor have there been any genuinely grassroots public campaigns in their favour. Instead they remain largely minority causes – enjoying the patronage of the political class, who dress them up as ‘progressive’ and ‘reasonable’, while leaving millions of people to scratch their heads and wonder at the sheer perversity of it all.

The notion that schoolchildren are mature enough to be entrusted with selecting Her Majesty’s government must surely fall into this category. The Votes at 16 campaign has to rank as one of the most cynical and opportunistic of our times. Crusades for the extension of the franchise have historically been waged by the masses and resisted by the elites.

Votes at 16 is the inverse of this: it holds little appeal in the court of public opinion, but is instead being foisted on us by those in power who have been rocked by the recent political convulsions and want to find a way of stopping any repeat. So their cunning plan is to swell the ranks of the electorate with hordes of new voters who they assume (probably accurately) share their philosophy and will reward them at the ballot box.

The rationale (such as it is) for handing votes to 16-year-olds doesn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny. It is argued that their lives are affected by the decisions of politicians, and thus they should be permitted to have their say. But aren’t all children’s lives similarly affected? On what basis, then, might we justifiably resist subsequent campaigns for the voting age to be lowered even further?

We prohibit 16-year-olds from doing all sorts of things in some or all parts of these islands: sitting on juries; working full-time; owning land or property; driving; marrying; buying knives, alcohol, cigarettes and fireworks; standing for council or parliament. And we do it because we know the truth: they are not mature enough to handle the responsibility, and there would be risks to wider society in allowing them to do these things.

Supporters of the cause argue that working 16-year-olds can pay income tax and, in the words of the America revolutionaries, there should be ‘no taxation without representation’. It’s a fair point. So make them exempt. Don’t infantilise the political process for the benefit of securing a few extra pounds in the government coffers.

Or they will pray in aid the handful of countries, including the likes of Nicaragua and Ecuador, where 16-year-olds have been granted suffrage – ignoring the fact that the vast majority, including 26 of our 27 EU partners and all of the Anglosphere, have not introduced such a measure.

Needless to say, Labour, my own party, has embraced Votes at 16 with enthusiasm. Two things motivate its support for the campaign. First, the general perception, so prevalent throughout today’s middle-class, student-centred party, of the older voter as some kind of embarrassing vulgar relative, part of the brigade of conservative bigots for whom the antidote is the liberal, progressive youngster. And second, the belief that most 16- and 17-year olds are Left-wing Remain types who would have voted the ‘right’ way in the EU referendum and the 2017 general election. Votes at 16 is quite simply a short-cut to winning political and electoral advantage.

I want Labour to win the next election. But I’d like us to achieve it through the hard graft of developing a programme that is attractive enough to persuade the grown-ups in the country to vote for it – not through some shameless vote grab.

In this age of ever-proliferating ‘hate’ legislation, where virtually every supposed vulnerable or marginalised group is afforded special protection against offence, the exception, it seems, are older people.

They are the new scapegoats. These ‘racists’ and ‘gammons’, with their neat bungalows and well-trimmed lawns and old-fashioned views, all destined to die soon enough so that the views of more enlightened younger folk become the majority (because, of course, the views of young people never shift as they progress through life). No matter that they have sustained the nation over many years through their hard work and their taxes, by raising the next generation, and, in some cases, through their military service. No, these inward-looking reactionaries stole the futures of our young and deserve everything they get.

It is without question one of the most pernicious examples of the targeted demonisation of an entire group of people we have seen in this country in a long time.

The phenomenon isn’t unique to Britain, though. Across the pond, there are grumblings about the rise of the ‘gerontocracy’, with liberal commentators bemoaning the gradually increasing average age of congressional representatives (I don’t know if they’ve worked out that life expectancy itself has gradually increased too).

They will pepper their complaints with talk of ‘mental deterioration’ and ‘dementia’, and speak of ‘those who aren’t long for this Earth’. These are often the same people who rail fiercely against all other ‘isms’ and will have supported laws designed to eradicate ageism from the workplace and wider society. Yet they think nothing of displaying deep ageist prejudice to older politicians and fellow citizens who don’t happen to share their world-view. It all adds up to the same sinister agenda: to delegitimise a point of view on account of the demographic of those voicing it, as part of a broader effort to delegitimise that demographic itself.

You don’t, for example, have to be a Trump fan (spoiler: I’m not) to recognise that he should be challenged for what he says and does, rather than for the era in which he was born or for some alleged psychological impairment. The same rule should apply to the likes of Jeremy Corbyn (69 years of age) and Bernie Sanders (77), by the way.

The data from both Britain and the US show that older voters are more likely than their younger counterparts to turn out at election time. The fact that nature’s onward march means they might not ultimately personally benefit from some of the things for which they argue and vote doesn’t put them off; they head to the polls in their droves. They are, as some will see it, exercising their civic duty on behalf of future generations, rather than for personal gain. In this, their actions stand in the traditions of our Victorian forebears and strike me as being worthy of high praise, not contempt.

Sure, some older people are dumb and unpleasant. But as a demographic they are often imbued with the wisdom that can only come with, well, age. Moreover, they are, in the way they think and vote, less susceptible to the kind of group-think and herd-like mentality that afflicts so many millennials. In these days of echo chambers and ‘safe spaces’, we should value them.

Think back to your 16-year-old self. I was barely qualified to use a razor, let alone choose a government. Though that didn’t stop me, like everyone else in my class at school, thinking I knew everything.

The liberal class’s fetishisation of ‘yoof’ doesn’t just risk debasing the entire electoral process; it also exposes their own rank hypocrisy. These people who dismiss the masses as low-information dupes easily hoodwinked by adverts on the sides of buses, who have done everything they can to subvert the outcome of a democratic referendum, suddenly want us to believe their plan to extend the franchise to kids is born from a genuine desire to give ‘power to the people’.

They must think we were born yesterday.

Paul Embery is a firefighter, trade union activist, pro-Brexit campaigner and ‘Blue Labour’ thinker


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