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‘Letting Young Adults Vote is One of Labour’s Few Genuinely Radical Proposals’

The extension of the franchise could shift the character of British politics, writes Nicholas Reed Langen

Labour Leader Keir Starmer. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters/Alamy

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In Warsaw last week, the queues at polling stations stretched out into the street and long into the night. Polish citizens stood in line for hours to cast their vote, with some ballot boxes not sealed until 3am, six hours later than scheduled. For a majority of Polish citizens, the effort was worthwhile: the governing right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) was toppled from power, replaced by a liberal-left coalition headed by former Prime Minister Donald Tusk.  

This victory is notable because there was no single liberal party challenging PiS for dissatisfied voters to rally around. Instead, there was a loose coalition led by Tusk’s Civic Platform, which cooperated just enough to give the three parties a majority in the Polish Parliament, winning 248 of the 460 seats. 

But what makes the victory remarkable is that the coalition also succeeded in the face of PiS’ attempts to tilt the electoral table firmly in their direction. In the months prior to the election, PiS tried to erode the reputations of Tusk and his allies, often by using the state media as its mouthpiece, and otherwise tried to buy favour among the electorate, distributing state largesse far and wide. 

Such electoral interference is not novel for an autocratic party holding power in a just-about democratic state. 

In countries like the US and Hungary, as well as Poland, hard-right governments have tried to win elections by fair means underpinned by foul ones. To varying degrees, they construct Potemkin villages of democracy.  Within these villages, there is a pristine democratic façade, with voting booths, secret ballots, and independent observers at the counts, but substantive democratic values are otherwise being hollowed-out. 

Gerrymandering concentrates critical voters in a single area, diluting their broader impact, and voter ID excludes unsympathetic groups from voting. The state media extols the bravery and achievements of the ruling party, while buses are chartered on election day to ferry voters in sympathetic neighbourhoods to the polls.

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The liberal-left is less adept at this game. 

Rather than venerate power, liberal parties venerate values and principles. Power is a second order good. 

While parties like the Conservatives metastasise into whatever they think will win votes, others such as Labour prefer to cling to their values come what may. The irony is that this tendency towards inertia on the left means that when liberal parties do attempt political reform, it is easier for their critics to brand it as an attempt to fix the system in their favour, and for such branding to resonate with voters. 

Policy Exchange, the right-wing think tank, has already targeted Labour’s softly-floated proposals to reduce the voting age early on, publishing a report this week which critiques this as “unfairly [changing] the rules of the political game”.

Voting rights are perhaps the greatest mark of belonging to a country. 

In almost every modern liberal democracy, citizenship and its attendant rights – of which voting is the most fundamental – cannot be bought or exchanged. They must be granted or earned. For those who do not draw citizenship of a modern liberal democracy in the birth-right lottery, the would-be citizen must clear various hurdles, like sustained permanent residency and passing citizenship tests, in order to win the right to line up and vote. They must prove their bona fides

But, while it is presupposed that a liberal democratic state must have a universal franchise, this is relatively novel in modern democracies. 

Archetypal liberal democracies, like Britain and America, once thought nothing of restricting the franchise on the basis of property, wealth, gender or race. In Britain, all men and women aged 21 and over were not given the vote until 1928. In the US, the Supreme Court only struck down the final direct attempts to deprive black people of the right to vote in 1945, while indirect efforts, like ID requirements, are still waved through.

But although broad, the franchise is still not truly universal. States are permitted, if not expected, to discriminate on the basis of age. So the argument goes, the line must be drawn somewhere, and 18 makes as much sense as anywhere else, even if other countries think it should be lower or even higher (Scotland lets 16 year olds vote in local elections, Indonesia forces its citizens to wait till 21). As David Runciman, the political philosopher, has argued, not only does a line not have to be drawn, but – even if you concede the need for one – drawing it at 18 is much too late.  

Sixteen year olds, for instance, are permitted to have sex, have children, live alone, join the army, or (at 17) drive a car. They are near-full members of society. Critically evaluating the achievements and policies of the competing electoral parties is comfortably within their capabilities. Such young would-be voters have a stake in the election’s outcome in both the short, medium and long-term, but are discounted. Instead, pre-eminence is given to older voters, who given the ageing character of Western societies, have disproportionate influence over electoral results.  

Inherent in this discrimination is the assumption that with age brings wisdom. Such an assumption does not survive much contact with reality.  

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The polls suggest that only counting the votes of the over-60s would have let the Conservatives whitewash the opposition in the last UK General Election, and that there would have been a two-thirds majority for Britain to leave the EU.  Looking at the state of the British nation after 13 years of Conservative rule, and three years of exclusion from the EU, gives cause to question the wisdom of crowds in general, let alone the wisdom of an elderly one. 

But even if age brings wisdom, it also brings property rights and pensions, as well as plenty of time to cast a vote on election day. And, in most democracies, voters prioritise their self-interest over the country’s. 

Sixteen year olds may be idealistic and naïve, but this youthful attitude and their self-interest contrasts with the beleaguered cynicism of the aged, who come to view all the parties as being ‘as bad as each other’.

Letting young adults vote is one of Labour’s few genuinely radical proposals and could shift the character of British politics, forcing politicians to engage with a part of society that is forced to live in a future they have no real say in.

Almost 50 million people are registered to vote in Britain. Giving 16 and 17 year olds the vote would add 1.6 million voters to this tally – if the youth vote turned out en masse. A 3% change would not bring about some absurd transformation of British politics, but would enfranchise and legitimise a section of society that is, at present, too easy for Westminster to ignore.  

Poland’s recent general election shows us that liberal parties do not need the youth vote to propel themselves to power. But the real case for voting rights is not because of ideological bias, but because of democratic legitimacy. On the other hand, much as they may pretend otherwise, objections to youth enfranchisement from right-wing institutions aren’t rooted in concern for democratic values. They are based on the concern that young people – and any government they help elect – might not listen to what they have to say.  

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