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Tiffany Jenkins

Stand ty ty ty

ONE week into the election campaign and Gordon Brown is not only kissing babies, he is chasing teenagers. Labour's election manifesto is to propose votes at 16. They have promised, if elected, as a package of measures aiming to improve political life, to call a free Commons vote on lowering the voting age.

This should come as no surprise. The Prime Minister was supportive of the Power inquiry, headed by the Labour peer Helena Kennedy, which recommended a reduction to tackle youth disengagement.

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And it follows on from the report recently released by the think-tank, Demos, that argues if young people are old enough to join the army they are old enough to cast a ballot. The Liberal Democrats strongly agree.

The Scottish Parliament too has nodded favourably towards lowering the age limit for the franchise, but is currently blocked by Westminster. This year, Scottish 16 years olds will get a say in the new Elected Health Boards.

Not only are our politicians keen to demonstrate that they are youthful, and hip enough to listen to the Arctic Monkeys, they are now courting the young.

Of course, if you are sweet 16 this attention must be flattering. Senior political figures in the country claim they want to hear your views.

But before the nation’s teenagers get carried away, (although I expect they are still in bed), the reality is that these proposals are cynical, at best. And at worst, they undermine important principles at the heart of our democracy.

The organisation ‘Votes at 16’ argues that it is important to tackle apathy and disengagement this way. “At a time when people feel that politics isn't relevant to them, young people need to be encouraged to take part in democracy, not kept out from it,” they state.

So this is not a discussion about whether teenagers should be reclassified as adults because they have demonstrated their maturity and a strong desire to participate. Instead, the proposal to extend the vote is a desperate attempt to increase turnout.

Trying to tackle the profound problem of the voters’ disconnection from politics, by gerrymandering the demographics, reduces voting to a numbers game. It sends an anti-political message to youngsters, by implying that genuine engagement counts far less than the quantity of votes.

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It avoids any argument about policies, turning the ballot box into a ritualistic duty with little emphasis on the importance of engaging in a programme of ideas.

And it evades confronting the reasons why so many young people who already have the vote abstain in the millions. It is estimated that only 37% of 18 -24 year olds voted in the 2005 election. The ‘whatever’ generation is not going to be turned on by getting to place an X in a box, but by competing manifestos that are more substantial than what is on offer, and when they are persuaded that something important is at stake.

Initially they may be won over by ingratiating politicians, but it’s highly likely that sycophants telling them they matter, just to legitimate the political process, will be a patronising turn off.

But the most important concept that is eroded is the idea that adults are actors who can influence and decide the future, which is the foundation for voting. Politically competent citizens have won equal influence over choosing their elected representative on the basis of independence and autonomy.

Of course, many older people are childish and countless teenagers are clued-up, but the principle of upholding mature deliberation is important. The ideal that we are agents of history is dependent on our capacity to act independently. And most young people are not adults, yet.

Campaigners compare lowering the age of voting with progressive changes from the past, including extending the vote to women and the working man, suggesting there are parallels. What an insult to these struggles. The suffragettes and Chartists did not wait to be enfranchised when turnout was low. They forced their way on to the political stage. The political elite did not want to grant them the vote, but were compelled to by the force and activism of those who demanded a say.

It’s not unimaginable that teenagers could take to the streets and do the same. Indeed history shows that young people have been involved in politics, especially during times of revolution and agitation. Political maturity changes and is not set in stone.

If the campaign was headed, run and supported by an army of spotty youth, then I would join them. But let’s be honest, they are not. These initiatives are organised in a top-down fashion and run by those who wish to bolster their support by any means necessary.

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It is revealing that this proposal comes from the government that has legislated for teenagers to be treated as kids. The same party that proposes lowering the age limit for voting, raised the legal age that a person can buy cigarettes, from 16 to 18, and announced that 16 to 18-year-olds will be forced to stay in education or training. Clearly they trust them with only so much: a vote in an election maybe, but not with running their own lives.

Yes, there are confusing inconsistencies in who can do what at what age, such as get married, pay tax, or leave school. But despite the catchy - and well-spun - line from Demos, although 16 year olds can join the army they are not deployed until the age of 18. They will not be in the firing line before they have their say.

I rarely agree with Tony Blair, but he made a sensible point when he disagreed with this proposal, many years ago, saying ‘I am not sure that we would always want 16-year-olds to do all the things they can do.’

Gordon Brown has linked lowering the voting age to a commitment to citizenship training. And supporters of reform argue that today’s teenagers are up to the task because of the impact of citizenship lessons for 11 to 16-year-olds.

But let’s not ignore the countless Ofsted reports have criticised the paucity of citizenship teaching and its empty content. Talk to any pupil and they will confirm that this subject is seen as joke and not taken seriously. Besides, true citizenship is not something that can simply be taught in a classroom, cribbed from text books and tested in exams. It is only developed though collaboration in the real world, mostly when people leave school.

In advocating for the youth vote, politicians reveal their inability to make the election interesting enough for us adults. They are giving up on grown-ups, in favour of trying to co-opt children. Their meddling with the age limit treats democracy as child’s play and that doesn’t get my vote.