Representation of the People (Young People’s Enfranchisement) Bill [HL] Debate

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Baroness Fox of Buckley

Main Page: Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-affiliated - Life peer)

Representation of the People (Young People’s Enfranchisement) Bill [HL]

Baroness Fox of Buckley Excerpts
Friday 28th January 2022

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for raising this issue. As a former further education lecturer who specialised in teaching 16 to 18 year-olds and as the founder and a supporter of Debating Matters, a competition designed to engage that age group politically, I am passionate about the issue of whether adults are paying attention to encouraging this age group to be informed and empowered. I just disagree that giving them the vote is the way to do it.

I have a question: why has the demand for votes for 16 year-olds become so popular among policy pundits and politicians? It is not because of a mass movement of teenagers demanding the right to vote. Unlike previous fights for the vote, such as for working-class male suffrage and by the female suffragettes, there is no mass agitation on the streets. However, a lot of energy goes into a rather top-down campaign. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, I especially noted the enthusiasm for votes for 16 year-olds after the 2016 Brexit referendum. That referendum result was often posed generationally as a vote by selfish oldies, blue-haired pensioners in the provinces and middle-aged gammon in red wall areas—all those reactionary types of old people—selling out the future prospects of the under-18s, who would have to live with the consequences for longer. There is a danger that this leads to attempts at, or an aspiration to, generational gerrymandering.

I also worry that there is an attempt here to flatter the young as a homogenous group while going hand in hand with stirring up ageist prejudices. More broadly, there is a trend sometimes to assume that the young should be listened and deferred to as a progressive act in and of itself. The self-conception by many people in institutions and political parties that they are too “pale, stale and male” means that there are often attempts to butter up the young. At a recent debate on gender identity and trans prisoners in this House, a variety of noble Lords suggested that this House is just too old fogey-ish to understand that the young are pro-trans identity and that we oldies should all get with the programme. Often, the inference is that those of us who are gender critical are old dinosaurs from an earlier era of the women’s liberation movement. Should we assess the merits of a case through a generational prism? If the majority of young people are censorious and support no-platforming, for example, should we just give up on the principle of free speech to satisfy a younger cohort? I do not think so.

To come back to the matter directly in hand, my core objection is that lowering the voting age to 16 would compromise voter independence. I want to explore some of the contradictions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, emphasised that the focus of this expanded franchise should be schools. That is a reminder that 16 to 18 year-olds are indeed still at school and are not currently considered independent adults. Logically, those who talk up votes for 16 year-olds should view teenagers as young adults capable of making all decisions for themselves; I would listen to them then. Yet the opposite is the case, as swathes of infantilising cross-party initiatives make the young even more dependent in the present period on adults, who are charged with treating them as people to be protected, looked after and chaperoned. You have to be 18 to buy cigarettes and alcohol, adverts for under-18s are banned, and so on and so forth. Try being a 16 year-old and having a drink in a pub and see whether adult society thinks that you are responsible enough to be trusted to make up your own mind and make your own decisions.

Indeed, as we have heard, everything from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to legislation and safeguarding rules defines those under the age of 18 as children these days. In that context, the state acts as a hand-holding protector. This hardly suggests a contemporary confidence in that age group as capable of adult responsibility. I might disagree with that, but you cannot have it both ways. Our society seems to be increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of these young people as morally autonomous adults, their very age making them dependent on state institutions—and, by the way, therefore open to state political influence. I suggest that, while that is the case, we cannot give them the vote. I stress the importance of independence not to query the competence of the young but to avoid degrading the meaning of voting, which is ideally a democratic right exercised by autonomous, independent citizens and not to be viewed as an extracurricular extension of civics lessons.

To conclude, 16 to 18 year-olds can be smart, inquisitive, mouthy, politically savvy and inspiring; of course, they can sometimes also be immature, infuriating and narcissistic—if someone asks us to remember what we were like at 16, I am afraid that is it. The point is not that 16 year-olds are not smart, bright, wonderful, brilliant people. The argument that has been used today is that, to demonstrate our interest in their interests, we must give them the vote, like a bribe or something. The idea that the only way that politicians will notice issues concerning 16 to 18 year-olds—or anyone younger, for that matter—is that they have the vote surely insults the democratic process and patronises the young, as though they need something to see that they are being taken seriously.

Political parties are failing at the moment to inspire the young who are voters. They are failing to inspire 18-plus voters who can vote. Perhaps we need to concentrate on improving politicians rather than expanding the franchise, which might be a distraction from much a deeper problem. I remind those who have argued today that votes for women are the same as votes for young people that those who opposed votes for women in the past did so on the basis that they were dependent and childlike. Now we actually want to make dependent, childlike citizens have the vote. I would watch that conflation of childhood and adulthood, because it insults both sides.