Friday, January 25, 2013

An Extra Argument For Votes At 16

 Yesterday in the Commons, there was a two and a half hour back-bench debate on whether people should be entitled to have the vote from 16 years of age. As the Commons was acting as a debating society and was not dealing with legislation, only 25% of its MPs turned up to vote. The vote for the proposal was carried by 119 votes to 46. Nevertheless despite the boycott, it was a fruitful effort for those who support the principle. It is now a proposal that is supported by almost all parties, except the Conservatives. Steve  Williams the Lib-Dem MP for Bolton West moved the proposal and he has also put forward a Bill to seek to impliment the measure. It is entitled the "Voting Age (Reduction to 16) Bill"  (Bill 125). Whilst the Conservative-dominated Government are likely to kick the current efforts into the long grass, what has just happened can only aid the cause. I feel, however, that an important point in favour of Votes at 16 was missed both in the debate and in the related Bill. I have put my case in an email to Stephen Williams, with copies being sent to several other MPs who share his stance. Whether I get any responses (positive or otherwise), we will have to wait and see.

My e-mail runs -    

Dear Stephen Williams,

There is an important argument in favour of votes at 16 which was missing from yesterday's debate. Namely, that providing voting rights from that age could be used as an essential step to tackle the serious problem of voter under-registration. The Electoral Commission has reported that at least 6 million people are missing from electoral registers. Yet we also see that the under-registration figure is likely to be larger than this, as census details have revealed 1.57 million people in England and Wales have second addresses and this will entitle many of them to double registration. If, say, 1 million throughout the UK have done this, that means that under-registration is actually over the 7 million mark.

With votes at 16, the names of "attainers" would be included on registers when they were 15, showing the dates of their coming birthdays and their then entitlement to vote. If registration for these first-time voters took place via their schools, an initial registration of almost 100% could be achieved. A proactive registration system could then be put in place to ensure that most of those who initially registered did not slip through the net later in life.

As under-registration is high among the 18-25 age group, the poor, the rootless and ethnic minorities, this also leads to a situation where the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies are seriously distorted. A system of initial registration via schools, with an associated and imaginative educational programme, could start to correct this imbalance and develop a commitment amongst young people to use and improve the democratic process. With almost universal registrations being achieved for 16 year olds via their schools, electoral registration officers could also be given the authority and resources to trace the addresses of the people concerned as they grow older and often moved their homes. This would have an early impact by ensuring that most of those newly enfranchised would be on the registers as they moved into the under-represented 18-25 age range.  Many of the newly enfranchised 16 year olds will also, of course, already fit (or come to fit) into the categories of other groups who currently suffer from under-registration.

Provision for pro-active electoral registration methods (including relevant education programmes in schools for 15 year olds about the democratic process) can be added to your Private Members Bill if it ever makes progress. It could also be added to any later parliamentary initiatives on the matter.

I am circulating this e-mail to Natascha Engel, who succeeded me as the MP for North East Derbyshire - as well as to certain others who have shown a positive interest in Votes at 16. 

All the best,
Harry Barnes.


Tim said...

Hi Harry.

Curious to know why you think 16, rather than say, 12 or 20, is the right age for the vote?

Harry Barnes said...


If you re-read my item (especially the details of the e-mail I sent to Stephen Williams) you will see why I opted for 16. It provides an avenue for impoving overall electoral registation, by getting people to register as "attainers" at school when they are 15. That makes it easier to track them for future registration purposes. I agree that there is no magic date for registration to commence for young people. I go for 16 for practrical reasons which can, in time, improve overall registration levels. Harry.

Tim said...

Yes, I can see that your reasoning makes sense from that point of view. However, what if the school leaving age is raised to 18 (which is still the plan, I think)?

Harry Barnes said...

Tim : The intention is to place all 16 to 18 year olds into education or training. It might be difficult to fit an educational programme about the vote into a training programme. Educationally there is also a case for catching them when they are young. Although your initial 12 year old alternative is far too young. Whilst you 20 year old alternative isn't practical, as it would mean taking the vote away from some who currently hold it. There is no perfect starting age for voting. We have to judge what is too early and what is too late. Most countries currently go for 18. The important thing for me is finding means to end the serious problem of non-registration. 15 year old studies on the reasons for having the vote, would seem to me to help. What age do you go for and why?

Tim said...

I am sure it would prove very easy to fit education about the vote into training programmes if it were a prerequisite of State funding.

You give no reasons why 12 is too young?

Surely, the solution to under-registration is simple. Introduce mandatory ID cards, link them to voter registration and fine people who don't turn up to vote.

I think what you propose is a solution which doesn't address the real problem which is that over 18s aren't voting because they don't think it matters, makes a difference or is important. I think there is a widespread general perception that MPs do very little apart from posturing, posing, speechifying and milking the public purse through their expense claims while real power has passed to unelected officials in Britain and Europe who are immune to democratic pressure and that whicever way you vote doesn't make a difference.

Enfranchising 16 year olds won't change that one jot.

As to your question about what age I think the franchise should start.

I have come to the conclusion that we are failing to provide a proper balance in the way we treat young people.

We seek to juvenilise them by treating them as children up until they reach 18. They may not drink alcohol, we pretend that 14 and 15 year olds are not interested in sex and so cannot possibly consent to it. On the other hand they are adults so we want to give them the vote?

How do you justify the mandatory daily incarceration of adult voters aged 16 - 18? Is it conscription? National Service? Or maybe they are just children after all? I assume that 16 year olds will be allowed to drink alcohol in the members' bars when they are elected to Parliament? Or not?

Overall, I think we fail to provide 12 to 18 year olds with the freedoms, protections, rights and responsibilities which are their due and what we really need is not to give them the vote but to establish some kind of separate legal status for them, neither adult nor child, but something different. In that context, maybe we could then ask them, collectively, what they think is the right age for the vote, for the ownership of their own bodies and so on. I am not sure what form this separate legal status should have and precisely what it should be, but I am convinced we have it wrong and need to change.

Harry Barnes said...

Tim : There is a distinction between education and training. Even though this difference has been eroded from the Thatcher era onwards, so that the former now looks more like the later. Those likely to run training provisions, would merely buy into the type of educational provisions I have in mind. It would not fit into the general pattern of their training. The pursuit of democratic understandings would, however, help to improve the educational system. So the educational avenue is the most appropriate one.

I'm am not in favour of compulsory voting. Democracy should be about people freely making decisions and not being forced into making choices they don't wish to make. ID cards could, however, be used to ensure that the missing millions were placed on electoral registers. But the proposal would need to overcome massive objections from those who would see it is an extention of State power over individuals. Yet I know that it worked in Malta, where peoples ID numbers appeared alongside their names on electoral registers. Although I have not recently checked that this is still so.

I don't see what 14 and 15 year olds interests in sex and alcohol has to do with their qualifying to vote. Advocacy of votes for people younger than 16 would just not be listened to. So if it is what you want, why not go for votes at 16 as a stage towards your ideal?

We can treat young people better than we do without (under your pattern) forcing them to vote. As with later age groups, we need to encourage people to come together to determine what it is they want from politicians and society in general.

I accept fully that the major problem is a distrust of politicans and a lack of interest in the political processes. I am fully in favour having politicians who have views and values (and also listen to people), rather them being dominated by career interests. That is why many of my blog items in the past have stressed democratic socialist values; such as participatory democracy, co-operation and social equality. I also hope that my approach was reflected in my own 18 years in the Commons.

Tim said...

Harry, I really do think there is something very wrong with lowering the voting age to 16 so separating it from the age of legal majority(which I understand to be the intent). The idea that, among many examples, a 16 year old who bunks off school on his way back from the polling station could then find that his parents are put in prison (incidentally disenfranchising them!) for failing to ensure his attendance at school is utterly bizarre, but would be, as far as I can see, a possible legal outcome of this proposal.

So if we are going to give children the vote, then, absolutely yes, why not ALL children.

Otherwise, I think that the consequences of lowering the age of majority needs to be considered much more fully, and that includes things like sex, alcohol, driving and so on and on. As I said, I think we should give thought to the way we treat and regard teenagers (really 12+, but teen is a useful label) in every regard, not just voting.

On your last paragraph, We no longer live in N.E. Derbyshire, but we did live there when you retired and we were very sad to lose you as our MP. For me it is not so much a matter of whether I agree with you on everything (as on this issue, where clearly we do not) but while your were in office I knew that your views were honestly and passionately held, with good intent. I wish I could say I thought the same of the current generation of MPs. Sorry but I think "participatory democracy, co-operation and social equality" are alien concepts to them.

Harry Barnes said...

Tim : At least we seem to agree that MPs should seek to serve the interests of those represent, as well as seeking the general well-being. How we achieve this is basic to the operation of democracy.

I now know that you don't wish to reduce the voting age any further, but I hope that you see that those of us who contemplate circumstances where it could be reduced to 16 aren't then in a position where we are logically obliged to move on to argue for votes at an earlier age.

Acting to further the well-being of the 12 to 15 age group is important. It involves us in trying to find out what they want. But giving them the vote is not the way to do this.

Thanks for the kind comments, even though you do not follow my democratic socialist commitments.

On another matter you have raised, I am in favour of votes from prisoners - see here

Given the topic of a discussion which I will be initating on Sunday, our discussion has been very helpful. See -

Tim said...

Harry, my objection is not so much to changing the voting age (whatever age chosen is arbitrary anyway), it is more about separating it from legal majority. It does seem to me that if you are old enough for one, you are old enough for and entitled to the other.

My views on votes for prisoners are, I must admit, equivocal. However, I remember reading your post and you make a good case.

Where I think we find unity is in a belief in democracy, the importance of having the vote and using it. That right was hard won.

Oh yes, "not follow my democratic socialist commitments" - were I to chose a political colour it would be sea green rather than your red, I think. :-)

Harry Barnes said...

Tim : There are a range of delicate judgements to make on the ages at which someone can first vote, buy and consume alcohol, marry without consent, drive a motor vehicle on a public road, stand for parliament, marry without needing consent, enter into contracts, buy stocks and shares and the like. The argument that all of these should be at the same age is one mainly for and ease of understanding. It would certainly be confusing if different ages were to be used for the eight items I mention. Yet on the other side, being mature enough for one item, may not mean that someone is mature enough for the lot. If voting was an exception,it would not necessarily destroy the rule.

Our discussion has come at a useful time for me. On Sunday, I lead a discussion in the Committee Room of the Contact Club in Dronfield on "The Collapse of the Franchise : What Can Be Done?". Then the following Sunday I will attend an afternoon discussion in Sheffield on whether a "Youth Charter" is needed.

I see myself as Red and Green and feel that aspects of the Leveller's tradition was later to be found in the Chartist and Suffragette Movements, whose arguments need to be linked to modern circumstances. The Chartist Richard Harney, pointed out that people need the vote so they can obtain their needs of "bread, beef and beer". Having the vote and using it in an understanding way is more crucial than ever.

Tim said...

I will put a green ribbon to one side for you. I do like the idea of a "Youth Charter", it sounds like something which could be much what I was thinking of - my thinking is that because as you rightly say there is no one "right" age, we need to incorporate that idea into a "something" which acknowledges that teens are neither children nor yet adult.

As to the collapse of the franchise - I think the parties have a great deal to answer for in their practice of parachuting MPs into constituencies. I would like to see a requirement that an MP have a strong connection with a constituency (if MPs are only really answerable to their parties central offices, why do we need more than 3?).

Harry Barnes said...

Tim : A resolution I submitted to my local Labour Party Branch is currently with the Constituency Labour Party; it calls for future Labour Party Parliamentary Candidates to have had their sole or main place of residence in either the Constituency concerned or in a continguous Constituency. It disturbed some people as they thought I was getting at the person who replaced me - but it was related to new candidates when vacancies arise. The meeting moved it to the Execuctive Committee to examine; which is like kicking it into the long grass. But I will keep at it.

Tim said...

I now live in Suffolk Coastal, our MP had no connection with the constituency prior to being selected, across the whole county of Suffolk, I think there is only one MP, Ben Gummer, who could be described as local.

I think we have ended up ruled by a new gentry, a class apart. Democratically unaccountable Oxbridge MPs and officials run the public sector. The private sector has been similarly subverted - companies not run for the benefit of shareholders but for the benefit of directors in collusion with the "City" - people drawn from the same narrow social groups.

Harry Barnes said...

Tim : We increasingly see the triumph of the political class, who lack experiences of ordinary life. They often spend their early years as reseachers to politicians, to govermental agencies or to pressure groups who direct their attention to influencing government decisions. Then they enter parliament as purely a career avenue. They could have chosen the law, the city, universities or any other profession to decidate themselves to advancing their chosen career. But they opt for parliamentary politics instead; probably because they see that it does not require prior and formal qualifications. Parliament has, of course, always attracted careerists; but now the political parties are in danger of only faciliating such people. At least we know what is wrong and what needs changing.

Tim said...

I agree wholeheartedly. One of the things which attracts me to the Levellers is the fact that they were not a party, just people who shared a belief in what were later called self-evident truths. I think parties (and people who blindly vote for parties rather than people) are a big part of the problem.

Harry Barnes said...

Tim : If people share a value system and wish to develop or change society in line with their vision, then they need to join together to further their cause. They can try to do this as a church, a cult, a pressure group or a political party. Any of these avenues, however, will attract forms of carriests who talk like true believers; but are really after rising in their organisation's hierarchy. It is only by democratic practices in such bodies that its members can keep such people in check and push to advance their cause. The problem with our current and major political parties is that they don't have the necessary mixture of given value systems and internal democratic practices. Furthermore, elections aren't avenues via which the great issues of the day are debated. They are increasingly contests based on the images and personalities of the leaders. So we need radically reformed or new political parties to argue for clear visions of the way forward. We can't magic into existence lots of independent MPs, MEPs and Councillors who appeal to
isolated groups of people in their separate constituencies. Even if we could, when elected they would have to sort out Governments and the like from amongst themselves. These would then just act like short-term political parties without any possible forms of external democratic party controls operating over them.

Just as we finally seemed to reach an area of agreement, we differ on the solutions to our current problems. From where I stand I am either for the radical transformation of the Labour Party or the building of a feasible alternative based upon the type of possibilities that existed under the immediate post-war Labour Government. Yet this needs to be in modern dress for we are in the midst of something that has never happened before - a rapidly transforming technological revolution (which allows you and I to quickly communicate). The Levellers values can only possibly be advanced in the modern world if we take into account that we have since their time been through (a) the massive transformations of the industrial revolution and (b) are now at the heart of an even more rapid technological revolution. It is not that the Levellers have no lessons for us, but that we have to adapt their ideas to an entirely different world.

Tim said...

Too often "join together to further their cause" turns into gang up on, bully and oppress people who disagree with you. Whatever the chosen ism - Christian Fundamentalism, Socialism, Communism, Islamism, Feminism - "I am right, you are not merely wrong, but also evil and damned".

I don't think we really disagree - I don't like parties, they promote dogma, doctrine, conformity, orthodoxy and subservience and are often vicious - however I do accept that there may be no alternative and in fact, even if you banned parties, they would likely continue to exist as secret gangs rather than public ones.

In the present parties we have top down, Statist organisations who rely for their power on people who vote for them out of nothing more than habit.

MPs are selected from a new gentry class and unless they are unfortunate enough to have been lumbered with a marginal seat, have little or no interest in serving their constituencies or the people in them because it is powerful, wealthy organisations like corporations, unions or just wealthy individuals who own the parties - they provide party funding and they provide post-Parliament career opportunites and sinecures for MPs who act in ways that favour their interests.

I don't see any way in which the current parties are going to be transformed into anything worthwhile. For that matter, I am not convinced that their fundamental philosophies are relevant any more.

Technology means that there are opportunities for ordinary people to participate more in the democratic process than has been possible hitherto. The 19th and 20th centuries were very different to those that preceded them, the next century looks set to be different again. Time for radical change, I think.

Harry Barnes said...

Tim: Value systems aren't all extremist, dogmatic and intolerant - although too many are. You yourself call for radical change. I am sure that you don't view this in extremist terms.

My own values (which I invariably fail to live up to) are for co-operation, democratic participation, social justice and an end to the expliotation of masses of human beings and of the world's resources. To aid a growing understanding of this approach, we need formal and informal education systems based on asking the fundamental question "why x,y,z" and a media that seriously debates matters. Although I grant that this might lead to differing public attitudes to those I hope for.

We can, however, come to share common principles in a non-dogmatic way and collectively control political, economic and social processes. These values can be pursued inside or outside of the political process. I seek to do it through both at the moment.

Tim said...

Harry, radical as in extremely different, not in a change to any one extreme.

I am twenty years younger than you, but we were born into very different worlds, I was born around the time when the first banking computer was commissioned, my partner, who was born in 1970 was born into a world which was very different again. Talk to someone in their twenties and they will be incredulous when you tell them about things like Post Office Savings books being filled in by hand, streets with no cars on them, houses with no electricity or bathrooms. No central heating, how did we survive! Pretty much the only thing which I can recall which has been constant is change, accelerating.

We are only three biblical lifetimes (3 times your "Three Score Years And Ten") from a pre-Napoleonic Wars agricultural society where average real incomes at £1,867 were less than they were at the time of the Peasants' Revolt.

What has happened in the interim is truly extraordinary, much good and much bad, but it is all just history now, it has its lessons for us (although it has to be said, experience can be an extremely poor teacher), but it is the past, dead and gone, the future will be radically different, one way or another, whether we like it or not.

I think we need new politics, new ways of thinking and I hope we will have lots of men and women of goodwill who believe like you in co-operation, democratic participation, social justice and an end to the exploitation of masses of human beings and of the world's resources. I think their political processes may be very different and if they must have parties, I hope they will be different too.

Harry Barnes said...

Tim : The future will certainly be very different from the present or the past - although it will be partly shaped by both of these. It is also likely still to face ideas and concepts which will (at least) be able to be traced back to Socrates. If it fails to draw from (and transcend) past concepts and ideas, then I am afraid it will be rather like Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World". It is, of course, still possible for the present to influence the future. We need to take that responsibiity seriously.

Tim said...

We have come a long way from votes at 16!

I am optimistic about the future. I would like to see a lot more of it than I shall, conversely, I don't think I would trade some of the things I have experienced for that.

It will almost certainly be full of surprises and not what we imagine at all.

I draw hope from things like that in almost 7 decades of nuclear weapons we have not manage to make ourselves extinct.

That the Afrikaaners ceded power in South Africa without a scorched earth war.

That one day, the people of Germany decided to come together, remove the wall that divided them and throw out the SED.

I think we could do with a bit of that spirit here and now, for that matter.

I could not agree more about the responsibility we have to those who will come after us.

Harry Barnes said...

Tim : I will take on board some of the points we discussed about "Votes at 16" tomorrow night here -

Harry Barnes said...


(The following comment was received by email and is reproduced with David Stead's permission. HB).

I sympathize with your debating partner Tim, in suggesting that the main disincentive to voter participation is [justified] disillusion with the whole political process. I don’t think the growing dogma/delusion that the current government will inevitably be [only] the second one-term government since 1945 is well founded. In any case, the next election is more than two years away. The damage that can still be done in that period is enormous.

The list of states adopting 16+ is headed by Nicaragua, 1984. I hadn’t realized they were the very first, although I do remember the issue. It seemed pretty obvious at that time that the initiative came from above – and it soon turned out that, whatever opponents of the reform might have thought, it did not produce an automatic Sandinista majority (any more than votes for women in the UK advantaged any particular party). Given the population pyramid in an undeveloped country, with half the people being 16-, it seemed thoroughly sensible. Three other Latin American republics have since followed suit, but it’s maybe surprising that there’s been no landslide in “the South”, and seemingly little movement elsewhere. Large anglophone countries appear to have backed off. The most bizarre anomaly to me seems that between the UK and crown Dependencies, but places where something might have been envisaged (e.g. Scandinavia, Japan, Israel) turn up nothing. If there’s such a thing as a typical European country, I might guess that Austria was least likely to meet the criterion, And I would have supposed that in this, as in everything else, the Swiss would have gone their own way, had their been any pattern to dissent from.

Back home, I can just about remember the furore over ROSLA in 1972, and think I might have seen it quite cynically as an expedient by a government which had little positive to offer young people. And how much truer is that today! Even if the latest proposals are in any way serious, maybe problems will remain. When, for instance, there is no way of imposing conformity outside England. And then, I suppose, if there was no gap between school leaving age and age of majority, extensive politicization of schools would (however undesirable) become inevitable. It may be that’s one reason why social democracies might be wary, but I can’t see that if a majority government introduced such a law, opposition would be any more than minimal.