The Labour Party’s announcement that it plans to lower the voting age to 16  gave newspaper columnists who are opposed to such a move the perfect excuse to trot out the usual tired old clichés about teenagers being spotty, monosyllabic morons.

Writing in the Daily Mail, Tom Utley says the average 16 year-old is ‘largely a nocturnal being,’ known for its ‘chaotically untidyUnknown lair’, and for messily wolfing down ‘industrial quantities of Crunchy Nut Bites’. Utley suggests that ‘Homo Sedecim’ (Latin for 16, apparently) is too unworldly to be given the vote, because he ‘never questions how his food and clothes are provided or how the bills come to be paid. He simply takes it for granted that he will always be fed when he’s hungry.’

How fortunate that all 16 year olds live in comfortable, middle class homes!

Whereas politicians like Ed Miliband only meet teens at stage-managed political events, as the father of four sons, Utley says he knows what ‘real’ 16 year olds are like. It would be ‘a cynical act of folly’ to extend the franchise to 1.5 million ‘stroppy teenagers,’ he concludes. In an earlier column, Utley quipped that, after votes for children, ‘It’ll be votes for sheep next.’

Well, if I were 16 and had a patronising old fart like Utley as my dad, I think I might be pretty stroppy, too.

But it is not just commentators on the right who are opposed. The Guardian’s political editor, Michael White, says 16 year olds shouldn’t be ‘burdened’ with voting, because they already have enough to worry about, including (I kid you not), their clothes and their zits. They should ‘concentrate on their music and having fun’, rather that worrying their zitty little heads about politics, he suggests.

Labour is by no means the only political party to support lowering the voting age. Last year, it was announced that 16 and 17 year olds will be able to vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum; and the Liberal Democrats have long supported such a move. Labour’s commitment to the change has not, however, met with universal approval, even among the ranks of its own MPs.

Tom Harris, Labour MP for Glasgow South, condemns the policy as an irrelevant distraction from more important issues. It will ‘impress and affect nobody’, he says. Even 16 year olds themselves are ‘apathetic or opposed’ to the idea. ‘But it’s exactly the kind of middle-class dinner party issue that tofu eaters throughout the country get really excited about,’ he says.

Now, I probably eat more tofu than most (being a veggie), but can honestly say that the subject has never, ever, been raised at any dinner party I have attended, middle class or otherwise.

What I have witnessed, however, is plenty of teenagers being caused great upset and confusion by finding themselves at the sharp end of endless government policy changes and increasingly trenchant rhetoric in areas like education.

GCSEs – the exams taken by all 16 year olds and the results of which will have a huge impact on their futures – are now a political battleground. Children who started their GCSE studies under one set of rules and with one set of expectations, have images-1found the goalposts being moved mid-way through courses. In 2012, grade boundaries for English were changed, so that those taking their exams in June were held to a higher standard than those who took them in January. Some children missed out on sixth-form places, as a result. The Qualifications & Curriculum Authority then announced that current students’ speaking and listening marks will no longer count towards their final English GCSE grade; to compensate, the proportion of marks allocated for written exams will go up from 40% to 60%. The changes were criticised by teaching bodies, including the Association of School and College Leaders, which said: ‘As a matter of principle, changes to assessments should never be introduced after students have started a course.’

Undeterred, Education Secretary Michael Gove has now decided to stop schools from entering pupils for exams a year early, and to ban re-sits. More reforms are planned.

As a parent, I may be hopping mad at seeing education turned into a political football; I may be outraged on my child’s behalf, at the stress, uncertainty and unfairness caused. But it is not me who is going to be personally affected; it is not my future university or employment prospects which may be blighted because of some politician’s whim. The educating of 16 year olds is unlikely to become less political any time soon, so it seems only reasonable that those whose lives will be directly affected should get a say in who gets to make those policies.

Under 18s also bear the brunt in the equally politically-charged area of criminal justice policy, but have no voice in its formulation or implementation. Teenagers are far more likely than adults to be stopped and searched by police. They are imagesdisproportionately likely to be victims of crime, particularly street crime, yet offences against them are massively under reported and politicians rarely talk about this issue. When ministers (and the media) talk about ‘youth crime’, they only ever mean young people as offenders, never as victims. The British Crime Survey didn’t even bother to record offences against 16 year olds until 2009.

Even while arguing against lowering the voting age, Michael White admits there is a direct relationship between an age group’s propensity to vote and how careful politicians are to protect that group’s interests. Quoting from an IPPR report which showed 44% of 18 to 24 year olds vote, compared with 76% of over 65s, he says:  ‘Guess which group’s benefits (the tabloids never admit pensions are benefits) have been protected by the coalition? Right first time.’

Small wonder then that, shortly after the 2010 election, the coalition scrapped the Education Maintenance Allowance, which had been paid directly to 16 year olds from low-income households. The percentage of 16 years olds who vote is, of course, currently zero.

The school leaving age was raised last month to 17; in 2015, it will go up to 18. There is what Nelson Jones, writing in New Statesman, describes as ‘a much greater sense that under 18s need society’s protection, not just from sexual exploitation but from themselves.’ They have fewer rights and responsibilities than before, he says, citing the fact that the age at which it is legal to buy cigarettes, knives and fireworks, or hold a firearms licence, has been raised in recent years from 16 to 18.

I don’t say these changes are a bad thing.  Indeed, I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more age-related restrictions: for example, I ‘d like us to give serious consideration to raising the minimum age for taking a driving test to 18 (the statistic that the leading cause of death of teen girls is in cars being driven by teenage boys always make me shudder).

But whereas Jones concludes that it would be ‘paradoxical’ to trust 16 year olds with the vote, when they are no longer trusted to buy a penknife, I take the opposite view. In the main, I agree that this age group deserves extra protections. But it is precisely because politicians, apparently with popular support, are increasingly restricting what they can do that these young people should now be given a voice in the political process. Never mind, ‘no taxation without representation’; it should be, ‘no restrictions without representation’.

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