Labour is still considering lowering the voting age to 16 despite the electoral commission’s recommendation that it should stay at 18 for the time being. What does this mean for young people? Are there hundreds of thousands of teenagers desperate to have their say in who runs the country? I think not.
By the next general election most of my friends will be eligible to vote, but few will. They are representative of Britain’s 18-24 population as a whole, who are turning out in lower numbers than ever to cast their vote. If so many young people who already can vote are choosing not to, then why the drive to lower the voting age? Why are campaigners so certain that they can find enough willing 16-17 year old voters to justify this change?
I agree with them that the current law does, unfairly, restrict a minority of responsible and engaged young people from expressing their views, and so I supported the case for votes at 16. However, I found myself surprisingly indifferent to the electoral commission’s decision, perhaps because I suspect that lowering the voting age would do little to empower young people.
Before we worry about lowering the voting age, we need to ask why those young people who are already entitled to vote are disengaged from the political process.
Recently there have been lots of proposals aimed at making politics more “accessible” to young people via interactive technology such as mobile phones and the internet; a Big Brother-style political television show was even suggested. Unfortunately this completely misses the point. These patronising, out of touch ideas are perfect illustrations of just why young people have no faith in party politics. To suggest that by jumping on the bandwagon of youth culture and sending a text message, politicians can capture the attention of young people is absurd.
Britain’s youth aren’t choosing not to vote because the right flashy website hasn’t been set up yet, or because we haven’t seen Gordon Brown vote Blair out of a televised Number 10. We are choosing not to vote because we have no faith in politicians.
My generation watched Labour’s long-awaited rise to power in 1997. We watched as they systematically broke election promises, privatising our public services left right and centre, and more recently we watched as they sent us into an undemocratic war.
It could be argued that this experience has given us a reason to vote – to bring about change. But voting feels futile when the political boundaries between the main parties have become so blurred.
On top of this, the vast majority of MPs are well over 30, and young people’s concerns are largely ignored by parliament. Why should we get involved in a system that fails to represent us?
So yes, votes at 16 would be great, but first, what we really need is to feel represented in parliament. My friends and I will only make the effort to go down to the polling station when we see MPs make the effort to address our needs and take our problems seriously, instead of hiding behind new initiatives to battle “youth apathy”. We aren’t apathetic, we are disillusioned – and with good reason.
Ben Feder is a school student.