By MARCUS STEAD
THIS has been a dull, lacklustre, uninspiring election campaign. In recent weeks, for entirely understandable reasons, the emphasis has been firmly on national security and the party leaders. As a result, details of the party manifestos have been under-reported and under-scrutinised.
One substantial Labour policy that has ‘slipped through the net’ is the pledge to reduce the voting age to 16. It’s worth providing a brief history of the voting franchise and how we ended up with ‘equal votes for everybody’.
In 1918, all men aged 21 and over, and all women aged 30 and over, were given the vote. The role of the suffragettes was far more controversial than is generally taught in schools today (not that it is taught in much depth in most schools).
Closer examination reveals that their violence, arson and vandalism alienated more people than they inspired, and it was the conscription of women into the workforce as a result of World War I in 1914 that led to votes for all women over 30, along with other social changes.
There were some interesting quirks to the arguments, many of which are no longer widely recognised. Many women were opposed to the suffragettes, and many in the Liberal Party feared that women voters would tend to be Conservatives, and did their best to delay the reforms.
It wasn’t until 1928 that the voting age for women was reduced to 21, bringing it into line with men. You will have to look elsewhere for a more detailed account of how the franchise was extended in the 19th and early 20th centuries, for I have more pressing matters to attend to here.
The next major changes occurred in 1948, when University seats were abolished. University seats resulted in a number of distinguished and exceptional individuals from entering Parliament who could not realistically have done so by any other means.
In the mid-1960s, Screaming Lord Sutch called for the voting age to be lowered to 18. He was probably joking, but, like several of the causes he championed, they were eventually to be taken seriously by the political establishment (the others being the launch of local and commercial radio, all-day pub opening, passports for pets, and knighthoods for the Beatles).
Just four years later, Harold Wilson’s Labour government reduced the voting age to 18 in a cynical but unsuccessful attempt to rig the 1970 general election in their favour. This piece of legislation had the frightening side-effect of putting 18-year-olds on juries.
Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to lower the age further to 16 is being proposed for similarly cynical reasons, not dissimilar to those which motivated Alex Salmond to do the same thing in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
Ask yourself this simple question: Do you want your future decided by 16-year-olds? Think very carefully.
16-year-olds are not wise. You were not wise at 16, and neither was I. Most people of that age will either still be in, or have just left comprehensive schools, where most of their teachers will have been Labour voters, and theories such as man-made climate change will have been taught as absolute fact, and the EU as an absolutely good thing.
Most 16-year-olds are idealistic, especially on matters such as environmental issues and foreign policy. Most will believe that the world is a far nicer place than it is.
Many will be easy to manipulate as a consequence of dire, egalitarian comprehensive education, and due to the tremendous peer pressure they feel at that age to conform. Quite a number idolise celebrities of the day and will follow whatever they are told to do by them.
For example, around the time of the 2015 election, Russell Brand was the ‘in’ celebrity with a lot of young people (a phase that has thankfully now passed). It’s hard to know exactly why he was so popular for quite a long time, but I put it down to a mix of his use of obscure words, which the easily-manipulated are flattered by and confuse with intelligence, and his fashionable opinions on drug use.
Around that time, a considerable number of 16-year-olds would have voted whichever way Brand told them to. 15 years earlier, the American rapper, Eminem, had a similar hold on many young people’s minds. In the 1960s and 70s, John Lennon and Yoko Ono assumed such power. You get the idea.
With age comes wisdom and responsibilities. It is a gradual process. I was fortunate in that I realised that the EU was a very bad thing and that Anthony Blair’s New Labour project was doing immense damage to this country several years before I turned 16. But even so, I had no experience of paying taxes, a superficial understanding of foreign policy, and no comprehension of my now-absolute belief that the man-made climate change theory is disastrous, very expensive and fundamentally flawed.
I began my journey to political maturity while still at school, and I was very much the exception to the rule, but I wouldn’t for one second conclude that it was anywhere near complete at 16.
At university, I witnessed how most 18-21-year-old politics students held similar views. They nearly always voted Labour or Lib Dem, believed the EU to be a good thing, and assumed man-made climate change to be absolute fact. I usually fought back in seminars to provide alternative arguments, though there were occasions where I concluded that it was more trouble than it was worth (especially on occasions when I was in a seminar with a Blairite tutor and a group of students I didn’t really know).
During last year’s referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, politically-engaged university students voted Remain in large numbers, in stark contrast to continental countries, where grass roots movements against the EU are fuelled by the energy and enthusiasm of the young. It is therefore quite reasonable to ask questions as to what is going on with the teaching in British universities.
The journey of political maturity continues throughout one’s 20s. The idealism fades as people settle into jobs, careers and start families. They realise that the world can be a very nasty place, that solutions to problems are often far from simple, finding the complete truth is not always straightforward, and that, if they’re honest, priority number one is the wellbeing of themselves and their family.
Other realities also gradually dawn, such as the fact you are not indestructible, some people don’t live to old age, binge drinking is dangerous and has consequences, night clubs are overrated and that fitting in with your friends isn’t so important after all.
The ages from 21 until about 30 usually see the gradual drift away from idealism into a reality of paying taxes and adult responsibilities. The idealism of youth comes at somebody else’s expense. When you become the taxpayer, you become more concerned about how that money is spent, and you may conclude that you are often a better judge of how to spend your money than the government.
A deeper understanding of financial reality also develops through one’s 20s. You are either paying rent, or a mortgage, and prioritise how your pay packet is spent. You grasp that money that is borrowed eventually has to be paid back, and that it is a bad idea to get into too much debt.
The individual in his or her late 20s is therefore far more likely to see through Jeremy Corbyn’s teen-like idealism and the ‘back of a fag packet’ economic calculations.
Yes, there are problems with the current voting system, but not for the reasons Corbyn is advocating. The notion of ‘equal votes for everybody’ is broadly assumed to be a good thing, but few people bother to question it.
Fortunately, attempts by the EU to bully the UK into giving votes to prisoners have been thwarted. Those who are in prison have forfeited their right to participate in wider society, and that should remain the case.
Before 1914, there was a rule that nobody who received a public salary or welfare payment could vote, thereby preventing parties from bribing voters by giving them jobs or handouts, something that works strongly to Labour’s advantage.
Let us not forget that during the New Labour era, one million more public sector jobs were created. Let us also not forget the absurdity of the jobs pages in the Guardian every Wednesday during that era, with its ‘diversity officers’ and ‘five-a-day co-ordinators’. Such frivolity is, of course, a useful way for governments to buy votes and to keep the unemployment figures down.
Public sector workers often think (rightly) that their jobs will be better-protected by a Labour government than a Conservative one, and therefore jump to the conclusion that it is in the country’s interests to elect a Labour government. They very often neither know nor care much about the difference between ‘debt’ and ‘deficit’, or the balance of trade, or productivity rates. All these matters, and generating the money to pay their salaries is somebody else’s problem, and they’re quite prepared to let the Labour Party get on with it without bothering to look at the sums.
Realistically, we cannot withdraw the vote from those who already have it. Some ideas of how it can be reformed for the better can be found in Nevil Shute’s novel, ‘In the Wet’, where he devises a scheme for additional votes. Every person has one vote, with some having as many as seven, based on the criteria such as academic achievement, successful raising of children, having a trade, living abroad and other experiences that make you a wiser person.
This is obviously a pipe dream, and one that cannot be realised in the Britain of 2017. For now, it remains a ‘joke’ in the way Screaming Lord Sutch’s policy ideas of the mid-1960s were a joke, but in time, they became a reality (he didn’t live to see some of them come to fruition, so we cannot be sure of what he would make of the Britain of 2017). But if the wisdom of ‘equal votes for everybody’ is publicly discussed and challenged, it may not be so far-fetched in the long term.
Yes, it is desirable to reform the electoral system, but in favour of wisdom, experience and achievement, rather than by exploiting the naivety of youth for political gain.
The prospect of votes for 16-year-olds is just one more reason not to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party on Thursday.