Apathy rules, OK

30th April 2004 at 01:00
The Electoral Commission was right not to fall into line with the patronisers and reduce the voting age to 16, Stuart Waiton says

Ministers and children's rights advocates campaigning to reduce the voting age to 16 may appear "radical" but are really only patronising young people. Study any of the measures being developed to encourage young people to vote and it soon becomes clear that this move to reduce the age of voting is neither a progressive measure based on a respect for young people, nor an initiative attempting to engage young people with politics.

Rather it is a degraded form of social inclusion where young people are being patronised to vote not as part of a political process but as an end in itself.

A key reason for the development of this report is a concern about the low turnout (39 per cent) of 18 to 24 year olds at the 2001 election. Those advocating a reduction in the voting age point to research which shows that the younger that people are able to exercise their first vote, the more likely they are to sustain the habit.

That the process of voting can be thought of as a habit, like a drug, rather than an engagement with political ideas and campaigns is not surprising, as those advocating the "youth vote" appear to lack any political convictions of their own.

Like the way we try to get children into the habit of brushing their teeth before they go to bed, here the participation gurus hope to instil a Pavlovian impulse in teenagers to vote every time they hear the election bell ring.

Voting, like politics today, has become a purely technical process with technical solutions. The concern about low turnout is not a "youth" issue and television adverts have already hit the screen attempting to encourage adults to vote. Unfortunately, like the student union bureaucrats of old who attempted to engage student voters by calling for cheaper beer these adverts attempt to engage us to vote for a government based on similar trivia.

The trivialisation of politics reflected in this advert has, however, been supplanted by a gimmick called the "The Box" which is soon to arrive in Glasgow to get young people interested in voting. This box, which is like a shop front with a living-room in it, works by getting a young person to sit inside it while other young people vote on what their boxed-in friend does.

The idea here is that by voting in this way young people start to realise how voting is empowering and gives them a say and hey presto, the bell rings and they will vote in the forthcoming general election. What is missing from this patronising exercise is any politics, any ideas, any vision of the future, any contesting passions and beliefs that could engage not only young people in voting but in joining and fighting for these ideals.

This, at a time of humdrum managerial politics, may be a big task, but it is not impossible. Indeed for an example of one way of engaging and challenging young people's ideas check out the Institute of Ideas website and the "schools' debating matters" programme it set up.

The reality of the youth vote "campaign" is that it is based on a degraded understanding of politics and a consequentially patronising idea of what young people are capable of. Indeed the very act of trying to get young people simply to vote rather than to vote for something tells us that the problem does not lie with young people but with the vacuous adults trying to get their vote.

The reason you can leave school at 16, work and get married but not vote is that voting and becoming engaged in politics should be the most important thing you do.

That it is not is a problem, but by attempting to find technical solutions to this political problem - like lowering the age of voting - the liberal and "radical" political elite is once again sidestepping the issue of political ideas. Ironically, the fact that most young people are not excited by this technical and demeaning attempt to engage them in voting may in fact be a good thing. A vote for the Apathy Party anyone?

Stuart Waiton is a director of www.GenerationYouthIssues.org.

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