I’ve met some very sharp, well informed and thoughtful teenagers and I’ve met people in their 30s who I wouldn’t trust to run a bath. Members of the first group cannot currently vote, members of the second group can. Is that fair?
Ed Miliband has committed to introduce votes at 16 if he is Prime Minister after the next election. He clearly thinks, as Alex Salmond did in Scotland, that younger voters will be more likely to vote for Left wing parties than for Conservatives. I’m not sure that assumption is necessarily true, and for the want of proof one way or another I’ll ignore the potential partisan motivation and look at the the pros and cons as I see them.
I like tidiness and the strange mix of “adult” ages in our culture and laws annoy me. In sexual relationships we regard 16 as being the age where informed consent can be given, so the combination of physical and mental maturity is set at that age. We can buy and consume cigarettes at 16 in England but need to be 18 to buy and consume alcohol.
You have to be 17 to drive a car but you can fly to your driving test as you only need to be 16 to be a pilot. You have to be 16 to buy a lottery ticket but you can be any age to babysit children.
Simply put our age thresholds are all over the place so using a desire for consistency as a justification for change falls at the first hurdle.
If we do push for consistency in adulthood how do we address the other ages that might also need to be reset? If we move to votes at 16 should we also reduce the age that you can be a candidate? Would it seem unfair not to and how do we feel about the possibility of a 16 year old Prime Minister?
We currently don’t send soldiers under 18 into war zones, should we change that policy if we change the voting age ?
Having laid out all these concerns I still find myself modestly sympathetic to the idea because I have met so many politically interested and engaged teenagers. The feedback from the Scottish referendum was less than conclusive and made no attempt to address the broader issues about consistency.
On balance I remain unconvinced but I would welcome a proper debate on the pros and cons of any change in a calm and, dare I say it, mature way.