Sunday, 1 September 2013

We should be trying to make young people want to vote- not just making them vote.

Young people should be compelled to vote in the first election where they are eligible to do so according to a report written by think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research. The proposal would see a small fine levied against young people who did not vote and the addition of a ‘none of the above’ option to the ballot.

At the 2013 local elections 32% of sixteen to eighteen year olds voted, compared to 78% of the over sixty fives. Young people have, according to the IPPR report been hit hardest by the spending cuts over recent years and so are more likely to feel alienated from politics.

Guy Lodge, an associate director of the IPPR told the BBC this week the unequal turnout at recent elections had given ‘older and more affluent voters a disproportionate influence at the ballot box.’ He went on to say that people who didn’t start voting at eighteen were ‘more likely not to get into the habit of doing so’, potentially trapping them in a ‘vicious cycle of disaffection and under representation.’

Also speaking to the BBC Sarah Birch or Glasgow University, a co-author of the IPPR report, said there are many things young people are required to do and ‘adding just one more small task to this list would not represent an undue burden, and it could well help to reinvigorate democracy.’ If nothing else, she added, it would ‘make politicians target first time voters like never before and give young voters the potential for greater political power.’

The government are about as capable of resisting a gimmick as a five year old is of resisting chocolate, the Labour Party is said to favour the proposal along with reducing the voting age to sixteen. This is an idea that has legs; and that is really rather unfortunate.

As someone who believes casting your vote is a vital part of being an adult I should back this proposal, but I don’t. The trouble is that for all the good intentions behind it making young people vote by law is unworkable and dangerous.

Telling youngsters, or anyone else for that matter, that they have to vote is only a small step away from telling them who to vote for. There is also the small matter of the sum raised from fining kids who can’t get it together to vote being less than the cost of collecting it and leaving the youngsters in question with a needless criminal record; just what they need when getting that vital first job is harder than ever.

If we are serious about instilling the habits of democracy in our young people and we should be, then we have to start way before it is time to step up to the ballot box. What we need is a thorough, engaging and impartial system of citizenship education in schools.

To date no government has managed to deliver this, although at some stage most have promised to do so. At best kids are exposed to a lot of well meaning waffle, not that Michael Gove has committed schools to trying to deliver an education fit for the twenty first century using methods that were old hat in the nineteenth even this is likely to go to the board.

A cynic would say this is because the political class don’t want an informed electorate asking awkward questions, I’m more inclined to blame it on good old fashioned British institutional inertia. Why go through all the fuss and upheaval of changing the system when we can jog along as we’ve always done?

The simple answer is because our democracy is under threat of dying of indifference. We need young people , and those of us tottering towards middle age too, to feel that voting matters, that despite what the bar-room cynics say they let you do it precisely because it changes things.

To do so we need to teach our children about democracy from nursery school onwards. Not just the mechanics of the parliamentary system but the simple but vital message that they can take part in the process too, perhaps then we will eventually get a House of Commons that is less white, male and Oxbridge educated; and a whole lot more responsive to the people it represents.

About the only good idea in these current proposals it the addition of a ‘none of the above’ option on the ballot. Although I prefer the wording used on ballot papers in New Zealand, which says with admirable Kiwi directness ‘I have no confidence in the above candidates’, it expresses perfectly how I feel about political establishment that is quick to embrace cheap gimmicks whilst dodging real change.

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