Votes at six: A ‘leap in the dark’ too far?

Posted in: Democracy and voter preference, European politics, Global politics, Political history, Political ideologies, UK politics

Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath. 

David Runciman has written a characteristically lucid and thought-provoking piece making the case for lowering the voting age to six. It is an argument he has made before and it is usually met with incredulity. Surely we should not give children the right to vote? Isn’t that an unconscionable extension of the franchise, a ‘leap in the dark’ too far even for the 21st century?

The piece is in two parts. In the first, Runciman argues that British democracy is dangerously divided by age and that older people’s interests and preferences dominate public policy. In the second part he addresses common objections to giving children the vote. His argument is both instrumental (it would be better for democracy and public policy) and intrinsic (children should have the right to vote). It is largely realist about politics and makes no claims for a radical transformation of democracy. Like some other projects of democratic and social reform, it might best be called a real utopian proposal. It merits a response in that spirit.

Runciman’s argument is that we are socially integrated but politically divided by age. As societies across the world get older, so older people make up an increasingly large proportion of the electorate. In the UK, they also turn out to vote in much larger numbers than the young. They now increasingly vote Conservative, rather than Labour, and as they dominate electoral outcomes, their preferences shape public policy - protecting the value of pensions, rather than paying off student loans and so on. In response, young people see the odds stacked against them and stop turning up at the polls. Geography as well as demography plays a role: the expansion of higher education draws students to university towns and graduates to cities, where their votes pile up ineffectually against the bigger and better distributed older voters’ bloc.

Runciman is right about this age divide, although not about all of its causes. The fall in young people’s turnout predates the marked age divisions we have seen in recent elections and referenda. In 1992, there were only small differences in the probability of voting for different age cohorts. In 1997, a big gap opened up, as young people’s turnout dropped markedly, and this gap widened until 2005 (it has improved somewhat since, and there was actually a narrowing of the turnout gap at the 2019 general election). So we need to look elsewhere to explain why young people don’t vote as much as older people than their being turned off a system stacked against them – and in particular, to explain the decline in young people’s turnout between 1992 and 1997. This is also a function of social class, as it is working class young people who have stopped voting in the largest numbers.

Partisan preferences also didn’t vary much in 1992 between the age groups but became starkly visible in the 2016 Brexit referendum and at the 2017 and 2019 general elections. Some political scientists have attributed this to values divides and a cultural backlash of older cohorts against the social liberalism of the young. There is some evidence for this, but Runciman is wise to avoid it, for reasons set out by Joe Chrisp and I here and here. Yet focusing on higher education and economic geography, as he does, also misses out an important dimension of the age divide – that of the political economy and material interests of older voters.

Older voters have distinct material interests in the UK related to homeownership (almost three quarters of people over the age of 65 own their homes outright), pensions savings and other financial wealth, and their social security entitlements. These interests are both the cause and consequence of political divisions. They have been in part shaped by Britain’s recent economic history: baby boomers got on the housing ladder early in life, and benefited from the long boom in house prices, while later reaping the rewards of asset inflation caused by Quantitative Easing and restrictions on credit in the post-financial crisis era. And they are in part political: the electoral weight of older voters in 2010 meant that their state pensions and public services like the NHS were relatively insulated from austerity, while policies were put in place to maintain house prices. Older people are thus central to consumer demand in the UK’s economy and its growth regime, and to its politics.

In Britain’s winner-takes-all electoral system, they have come to form the critical electoral bloc of support for the Conservative Party. This electoral bloc may be more brittle than it has come to appear in recent years but tackling the age divide in politics is likely to require addressing the political-economic inequalities on which it currently rests. (This is not to reduce politics to economics, or to separate out culture from class, but understand them as part of a social-economic formation, evolving over time).

Is the answer – or at least one answer – to enfranchise children? Probably not. Many other countries are ageing faster than the UK, but do not exhibit such significant political age divides as the UK does. One reason is that the UK’s first-past-the post electoral system allows the interests of efficiently distributed older voters to shape government formation and policy outcomes. In proportional voting systems, no single age or class bloc can ordinarily dominate – as the recent German federal elections neatly demonstrate. Older voters interests have to be weighed against those represented by other parties in coalition formation. Electoral reform might therefore be a better option for rebalancing British democracy.

Another option is mandatory or compulsory turnout. Over 20 years ago, the political scientist Arend Lijphart argued that mandatory voting was the best and most direct route to tackling class inequalities in politics. More recently Sarah Birch has made the case for compulsory turnout to address age and income inequalities in voting and political representation in the UK. There are significant hurdles to both of these reforms, but they are doubtless lower than enfranchising six year olds.

So what of the case on its own merits? Runciman argues convincingly that excluding children from the franchise on grounds of competence is incoherent or inconsistent, given that no such exclusion exists for adults (although he passes over the fact that whole groups of adults are excluded from voting in general elections, such as Peers, prisoners and many non-citizens). His political realism allows him to deflect the charge that children will be dictated to by their parents: we don’t know if that will be true, and we all vote in tribes anyway. He has a neat line with which to reject the case that children need protecting from grown up responsibilities and duties, citing Simone de Beauvoir that ‘it’s always the people with power who say they want to protect others from exercising it’ (although this is less compelling when set alongside Runciman’s other work on the digital behemoths: shouldn’t we be concerned about Facebook targeting children with political advertising, or Russian bots spreading ‘fake news’?)

Yet perhaps the most obvious concern is that extending the franchise to children will simply mirror voting inequalities in the adult population. Children from younger working class homes won’t vote, just as their parents don’t. The children of graduates in university towns and cities might vote, but their votes will pile up alongside those of their parents. Without electoral reform, mandatory voting or a distinctly inter-generational political appeal from parties of the liberal and centre-left, extending the franchise to children will end up reproducing inequalities, not overhauling them.

Perhaps that is too pessimistic. Either way, Runciman’s argument is an important provocation to addressing the weaknesses and entrenched inequalities in British politics, and to thinking differently about the democratic agency of children. If it helps to unblock the arteries of the British body politic, so much the better.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

Posted in: Democracy and voter preference, European politics, Global politics, Political history, Political ideologies, UK politics


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  • I am so tired of this "baby boomers got on the housing ladder early in life, and benefited from the long boom in house prices" Millions of us didn't! It's just lazy generalisation.