This blog collects perspectives on the election you won't find anywhere else, by political experts, based in the School of Politics and International Relations at The University of Nottingham.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Think tank in sloppy logic shocker

"...doing something that almost 80% think is daft is a curious way to reinvigorate the political process."

The age of majority has been the subject of two major independent reports in recent years. The first, by the Electoral Commission came out in 2004. It recommended against lowering the voting age to 16. The second, by the government’s Youth Citizenship Commission, came out in 2009. It too did not recommend votes at 16.

I need to declare an interest here, as Vice-Chair of the YCC. I cannot speak for all of my fellow commissioners – some of whom were in favour of votes at 16, some against – but one of the most frustrating things about the debate was how disingenuous many of the arguments were, especially those put forward by those who favoured lowering the voting age. You’d hear repeatedly about how people could get married at 16 – but without mention of the fact that (in England and Wales) it requires parental consent to do so. Or you’d hear about how people could pay tax – cue the cry: no taxation without representation! – without mention of the fact that taxation isn’t age-related: indirect tax (about which ‘no taxation without representation’ was first uttered) is entirely age-neutral, and even income tax begins at the point at which sufficient income exists, not at any specific age. Sometimes these errors and elisions were just the simplifications that inevitably creep into political campaigns, but at times the number of such weaknesses did raise the suspicion that they were in fact covering up a pretty weak case.

The thinktank Demos have just published a report arguing for votes at 16, and sadly it’s full of exactly the same kind of flaws. One paragraph is a particularly stunning example:

Being able to join the armed forces at 16 is just one example of an age-differentiated right that lends support to an argument for lowering the voting age to 16. The ‘Votes at 16’ coalition states that some 4560 16 and 17 year olds were serving in the armed forces as of April 2007. Of the first 100 British soldiers to be killed in the ongoing war in Iraq, at least six were too young to have ever cast a vote in a general election.
Leaving aside the fact that the Demos authors appear to have just accepted the evidence of the Votes at 16 coalition without verifying it (not something I would recommend), there are two huge sleights of hand going on here.

The first is in the word ‘serving’. Because whilst it is possible to serve in the armed forces below the age of 18, frontline service is supposed to be avoided until 18. So despite the line in the report’s conclusion about denying the vote to those who are fighting and dying for their country, there should be no such cases. Also note – only mentioned later in the Demos pamphlet – that joining the armed forces below the age of 18 is only possible with parental consent, because society does not see 16-17 year olds as able to make that decision alone.

Ah, but you say, what about the ‘at least’ six casualties, ‘too young to have ever cast a vote in a general election’. And here’s the second, and by far the worst, sleight of hand. All of those listed, terribly young though they were, were 18 or 19. All, in other words, were old enough to vote. Hence the curious construction of that sentence: it is not ‘too young to vote’, but ‘too young to have ever cast a vote in a general election’. Note here the belittling of all other elections such as local or European elections – presumably Demos thinks these aren’t real elections? – because that would not fit the authors’ arguments. And then try to follow the logic to its conclusion: to insist that all members of the armed forces cannot serve in front line roles – with all the attendant risks – until they have had the chance to participate in a Westminster election would require lowering the voting age to 13. Only then could we be certain that no one aged 18, or 19, or 20, could die serving in the armed forces without having had the chance to vote in a Westminster election. Perhaps this is what they think? If so, they should say so. Else, there is the danger that this appears as a pretty despicable bit of shroud waving, using the deaths of young soldiers to advance an otherwise weak argument.

The same sloppy logic unfortunately applies to much of the rest of the report. There is, for example, a section of the comparable rights and responsibilities of young people, which does not note that many of them have been rising in recent years – with 16 year olds today denied things that would have been available to them a decade ago. These are all inconvenient facts, but they are ones worth noting in any balanced weighing up of the evidence, which Demos claims to be doing.

The bit that the report does get right, however, is that this not a popular move amongst the wider public, no matter how much ground it is gaining amongst elements of the Westminster village. Whilst it rightly notes that public acceptability is not the only guide to reform, doing something that almost 80% think is daft is a curious way to reinvigorate the political process.

Professor Philip Cowley


  1. "The first is in the word ‘serving’. Because whilst it is possible to serve in the armed forces below the age of 18, frontline service is supposed to be avoided until 18."

    Oh dear. Do you really have to roll out the "serving" arguement?

    She may be a nurse, Blackadder...

    Welcome to 1914.

  2. Your comment about the phrase "too young to have voted in a general election" caught me - by the time of this election on May 6th, which is slightly more than 5 years since the last one, it is possible that a 23 year-old has their first opporunity to vote in a GE.

  3. A Fabian attempt to get them voting while they're still young and inexperienced enough to believe in Labour's "free lunch" type promises.

    Why not just allow anyone fighting on the front line to vote, which sadly appears not to be the case at the moment and has got nothing to do with their age but more to do with Labour's betrayal of the military.


    Is there a sinister Labour plot to stop British troops voting in the election?

    VC hero refuses to shake Gordon Brown's hand because of 'disrespect' for Armed Forces


  4. Tx for the comments. Not clear to me what point Anonymous thinks they are making. It *was* true - and horrific - that in 1914 and 1945 (and in several conflicts since) members of the armed forces could be expected to fight and die for their country without the right to have voted.

    But it is no longer true. We restrict the rights to frontline service to those over 18, because we think 16 and 17 year olds are too young. The logic should hold for their franchise too.

    If we were expecting 16 and 17 year olds to fight, I'd happily support them having the right to vote. But we don't.

  5. And for those over fifty too old to serve in the Armed Forces, are their votes to be taken away?

  6. Interesting post. As someone instinctively sympathetic to the idea of lowering voting age to 16 it's made me think a bit harder about it.

    To my mind the real problem is that the ages of 16-17 are extremely confusing legally.

    Excellent blog btw, essential reading atm, hope you keep going after the election.


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