There is no good reason to exclude children from the right to vote. Indeed, I believe there is a strong case for lowering the voting age to six, effectively extending the franchise to any child in full-time education. When I have made this case, as I have done in recent years in a variety of different forums, I am always struck by the reaction I get. It is incredulity. What possible reason could there be to do something so seemingly reckless and foolhardy? Most audiences recognise that our democracy is growing fractious, frustrated and frustrating. Our political divisions are wide and our institutions seem ill-equipped to handle them. But nothing surely could justify allowing children to join in. Wouldn’t it simply make everything worse?
It would not. In fact, it might make things better. But to understand why, we first need to understand the nature of the problems our democracy faces, and in particular, the generational divide that has become an increasingly important factor in politics over recent decades.
We have never been more divided. And yet we have never had more in common. Britain, like other western democracies, is split down the middle on most of the big political questions. Brexiteers square up against remainers. The north opposes the south. It’s the city v the countryside. Graduates confront non-graduates. But at the same time, we increasingly share a single frame of reference. We watch the same TV shows, circle round the same topics of conversation and obsess over the same celebrities. When Oprah interviewed Harry and Meghan, responses to what they said were conditioned by political tribalism. Tell me how you voted in the Brexit referendum and I’d have a good idea of whether you were team Meghan or team Kate. Still, we all tuned in together. And when it was broadcast, we were all under lockdown together.
The contours of this new landscape – politically divided, socially connected – are most stark when it comes to intergenerational conflict. If the franchise at the 2019 UK general election had been limited to the under-30s, Jeremy Corbyn would have won the biggest landslide in Labour’s history. If it had been limited to the over-60s, the Tories would have won almost every seat in the land. The old and the young have become two separate political nations. But they are not, as Disraeli once said of the rich and the poor, “two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy, who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets”. Young and old interact at almost every level of their lives. Family life is built on that interaction. Far from inhabiting separate planets, the different generations often inhabit the same homes.
Of course, families can be places of deep antagonism, too, especially when young and old are forced together under one roof. No society has ever been free of intergenerational conflict. What makes our society different is that the generations diverge so profoundly over politics while coming together over so much else. When I was a child in the 1970s, pop music was primarily for the young. Older generations were more likely to listen to classical music, or big bands, or show tunes. Kids swore, but not in front of their parents. Their parents swore, but not in front of the children. Young people wore jeans, but their grandparents didn’t. They still wore jackets and ties, or skirts and dresses. When the weather got warmer, the young would strip off, but that was a privilege of youth. The old had to sweat it out. Go to any high street now on a hot summer’s day and count the men in shorts, regardless of age. The sixtysomethings will often be dressed like the children.
What, then, explains the widening political divide that lies behind our growing social conformity? The answer is a combination of demography and geography. Ours are now rapidly ageing societies in which older voters have come to outnumber the young. This is the case across Europe, in the US and increasingly in Asia, too. The traditional dynamic of intergenerational conflict was that even if the older generations had the wealth and the power, the young had the numbers. In all democratic societies, from ancient Athens to 1970s Britain, there were many more voters under 40 than over 60. That is no longer the case. Our growing social conformity is not simply because the old are aping the habits of the young. It is because in any society where the middle-aged and elderly are the dominant economic and political blocs, their interests predominate. Pop music used to be for the young because that’s where the market was. Now it is people like me who are being catered for (I’m 54). It’s my 12-year-old son who is finding himself listening to the music of my youth, not the other way round.
The reason that the outcome of the 2019 general election looked more like the map of an elderly political nation than a youthful one is simple weight of numbers. The over-65s, who at the dawn of modern mass democracy 100 years ago made up barely 5% of the electorate, are now closer to 20%. What’s more, older voters tend to turn out in far higher numbers than the young. The conventional lament of progressive politicians was that if only people in their 20s voted with the same dedication as people in their 70s, they could tip the balance. It was assumed that elections kept going against younger voters’ interests because they failed to show up at the polls. Now it’s as plausible to argue that they fail to show up because elections keep going against their interests. Why bother if the system is stacked against you?
This effect has been exacerbated by geographical movement, which congregates significant numbers of younger voters in cities and university towns, where they relocate for work and education. The concerted expansion of higher education from the 1980s onwards has led to a large-scale migration of those in their late teens and early 20s from their home towns, often never to return. The places they go to – Brighton or Bristol, Canterbury or Cambridge – have become far more likely to return Labour MPs, because there the young can tip the balance. But as their votes pile up in densely populated metropolitan areas, the places they leave behind have started returning Conservative MPs in ever-greater numbers. The “red wall” seats that turned blue in 2019 have been left behind in this sense at least: the average age of their constituents is far higher that it was before so many students departed.
There is now a set of vicious circles at work. Once politicians representing older voters start winning elections time and again, the young are discouraged from voting, which only makes the political imbalance worse. If young people pursue social mobility by moving to places where other young people are, they increase the likelihood that older voters will dominate electoral outcomes everywhere else. The result will be governments and policies that work against the sorts of social mobility that younger voters tend to favour. This has been the pattern in Britain for the best part of a generation. Pensions will get protected while student debt goes unaddressed. The interests of mortgage payers will be prioritised over the interests of renters. A country in which more than 70% of the under-30s voted to remain in the EU will still choose to leave. Once the old outnumber the young, the political divisions between them will grow. Even if everyone is watching Bridgerton.
When the pandemic arrived, it briefly seemed likeas if these generational divisions might be somewhat healed. We all faced a common enemy. The lockdown rules applied to everyone, and the experience of being stuck at home generated a whole new set of common reference points. Griping about Zoom – for work, for family calls, for anything – became a habit for young and old alike. Being cooped up, getting used to wearing masks, trying to understand the new rules – these were all things we endured in common, with the same dates in our calendars and the same sense of disappointment as they came and went without clear resolution. Our social connectedness has never been more vividly on display than when we went into enforced isolation from each other.
But this sense of connection simply hid a more familiar pattern. In a society where demography and geography are widening the political divisions between the generations, the pandemic has done nothing to bridge them. It has made them worse. The worst consequences of the virus are very unevenly distributed. The chances of dying from Covid-19 are vastly greater for the over-70s than the under-30s. That of course is why the old have been prioritised throughout: for protection, for treatment, for vaccination. Neither politicians nor the public have had much choice about this: the profile of the disease meant there was no other option.
In this, the effects of Covid-19 are part of a longstanding trend. As the population ages, healthcare becomes more and more of a political priority. Older people have a greater need for it, and the working population is required to pay for it. Because older people determine the results of elections, politicians do everything in their power to maintain this equation. The totemic status of the NHS throughout its existence conceals a profound shift in its primary purpose. When it was founded in 1948, its priority was infant health, in a society in which infant mortality was high, childhood diseases were still rife and children made up a far higher proportion of the overall population. Now the NHS is required to focus on elderly people, and their interests come first. Covid has not skewed our political priorities when it comes to health. It has simply revealed them.
The pandemic has highlighted generational imbalances without doing anything to resolve them. Politicians talk about rewarding the young for the sacrifices they have made, but our political system does little to incentivise politicians to turn those words into actions. The young can plausibly claim that democracy presently discriminates against them in more ways than one. Not only are their votes regularly outweighed, but their representatives are rarely from their own generation. The average age of members of the House of Commons has barely changed in a century: it moves up and down from parliament to parliament, but never far away from 50. It is currently 51, roughly where it was after the first world war. It is true that there are more MPs in their 20s in the parliament elected in 2019 than ever before. But it is only 21, and still vastly outnumbered by the 300 MPs in their 50s and 60s, and fewer even that the number of MPs over 70.
Yet there is another source of democratic discrimination that is rarely, if ever, discussed. The reason the over-60s outnumber the under-40s at the polls is not because they represent a higher portion of the overall population. They don’t. The median age in the UK is 40.4, which means there are almost as many people under 40 as there are older than that. The over-60s, though far more numerous than they used to be even a generation ago, are still only a minority of the total. But democracy does not work like that. There is no cutoff at the top end, so that the over-60s includes the increasing number of people in their 70s, 80s and above. But we do exclude anyone under the age of 18 (or 16 in Scotland) from full democratic citizenship, including the right to vote. We do this because that is the way it has always been.
When it comes to democracy, children don’t count. Why not?
The arguments against allowing children to vote always start with the basic question of competence. But what that means is that we are applying standards to children that we have given up applying to anyone else. It is true, of course, that many children would struggle to understand complex political questions, especially younger children. It is hard to envisage a group of six-year-olds getting to grips with fiscal policy. But many adults also struggle with complex political questions, and all of us have big gaps in our political understanding. (I say this as someone who studies politics for a living, and not because I have studied the ignorance of others, but because I am reminded daily of my own.) The fact is that we don’t apply a test of competence before granting the right to vote to anyone other than children. So why start with them?
Setting imaginary tests before allowing enfranchisement is an essentially 19th-century idea. The basis of the principle of universal suffrage that replaced it is that we no longer believe voting is a right that belongs to individuals on the grounds of their competence to exercise it. Instead, it is a right that belongs to each of us because we are members of a democratic political community, and will have to live with the consequences of the decisions that are made by politicians on our behalf. If we suffer the consequences of those decisions, we should have a right to express a view about who gets to decide. That applies to children just as much as adults.
Perhaps, instead, the argument against letting children vote is less a principled one than a pragmatic one. Surely more adults are likely to understand what is at stake in an election than a group of schoolchildren. But that depends a great deal on how we conceive of the groups in question. It is striking how often sceptical audiences jump to the conclusion that lowering the voting age to six would mean giving six-year-olds a decisive say in the running of the country. That is absurd: the lower age group would be a small minority of children overall, just as children would still be a minority of the overall electorate. Older voters in any instance can always outvote the young. But if we take children in education as a whole, there is a good chance that some groups will be better informed than many adults. They have the time and the resources to learn what is at stake if they want to. No one can be obliged to take an interest in politics, but that is as true of adults as of children. The difference is that children in school are better placed to make up the gaps in their knowledge.
The question of competence – and the difficulty of using it as an argument against extending the vote to children – is especially acute in ageing societies such as our own. As the population ages, so the number of voters suffering from dementia and other forms of cognitive decline rises. But we don’t take the vote away from old people, and we don’t apply tests of competence to individuals in their 80s and 90s. Again, it is very striking how often I find that when pressed on this point, audiences will say that rather than giving votes to children it would be better – safer? – to disenfranchise elderly people. The 19th-century assumption that we ought to discriminate on grounds of competence has not gone away.
Yet it would not be better – certainly not safer – to disenfranchise elderly people. As soon as anyone suggests a programme of mass disenfranchisement, we should always ask how it would be done. By doctors? By going into care homes and asking the residents to take a test? By simply arriving at some arbitrary cut-off point, say the age of 80? How would the many actively engaged and extremely well-informed voters in their 80s take to being told that they have lost the right to vote because others of their age have been deemed unfit to exercise it?
There is a lot to be said for the principle of universal suffrage, not least that it sticks to the basic democratic idea of one person, one vote. It does not play around with quotas and competencies and tests. Taking the vote away from elderly people would violate that principle. Giving the vote to children upholds and extends it.
There are plenty of other arguments that are made against allowing children to vote. One of the commonest is that they would simply do what their parents say. In the early years of the 20th century it was often said that it would be pointless to give women the vote because they would just do what their husbands say. This was not true, of course. Women were as capable of making their own choices as men, and they often voted differently from their husbands. Would children be any less independent? We might think that they would be more susceptible to parental pressure than adults are to spousal pressure, but in truth we have no idea because we have never tried to find out. Do children follow their parents’ views on other matters than politics? Sometimes, but not always. Do children ever decide to embrace the opposite of what their parents think? Not always, but often enough.
It seems just as likely that children would be influenced in other ways. Perhaps by their grandparents, especially since many school-age children of working parents spend as much time with grandparents as with parents. Perhaps by their teachers, or by their friends, or by their favourite YouTube stars, or by footballers, or by superheroes. So, you might say, I am admitting that children would be susceptible to all sorts of external pressures. Of course – but so are adults. There is overwhelming social science evidence that all voters, old and young, educated and uneducated, make their political choices on the basis of loyalties, identities and forms of peer pressure that often have little or nothing to do with politics, and certainly are far removed from the political issues that are the focus of high-level debate. We are all politically tribal in one way or another. Do we know whether six-year-olds might turn out to be more conservative than their parents? We don’t, but there is only one way to find out. Let them vote.
But shouldn’t children be protected for as long as possible from having to deal with the harsh realities of the adult world? Shouldn’t we preserve them from grownup responsibilities? These are also familiar arguments, and ones that were made against giving votes to women: why burden anyone with unnecessary responsibilities when the hard work of taking difficult decisions can be left to others? Simone de Beauvoir had a clear response to this line of thought in The Second Sex: it’s always the people with power who say they want to protect others from exercising it. Men say it. Women don’t. Colonisers say it. The colonised don’t. Adults say it. Children don’t. People without a say don’t want to be protected from the burden of having a say. They want to experience it. And once experienced, they don’t want to give it up.
Are children a special case? It is often assumed that getting children involved in politics would corrupt them because politics is such a nasty business. But I believe the opposite is the case. Bringing politics into schools wouldn’t make schools worse. It would make politics better, precisely because we take the protection of children seriously. Consider this thought experiment. Think of an adult political debate: BBC Question Time, for example, with all its grandstanding and rabble-rousing and howling partisanship. Then think of a similar debate, discussing similar issues, taking place in front of an audience of primary-aged schoolchildren, with their teachers watching on. Would the conversation be worse-tempered? Or would it be conducted better? Would it perhaps even be better informed?
What’s left of the argument against letting children vote is more straightforwardly partisan. Given the competing, age-based electoral maps that divide the UK into the Corbyn/remain nation of the young and the Johnson/Brexit nation of the old, extending the franchise in this way can look like blatant gerrymandering – a desperate way to reverse Labour’s seemingly grim electoral prospects. Lowering the voting age to 16, which has happened in Scotland, sometimes appears to be a piece of naked political engineering. Because younger voters tend to be left-leaning on a range of issues, increasing their number could be expected to tip the balance in favour of particular causes. Wouldn’t lowering the voting age to six be more of the same? No. First, because we don’t know how children would vote: they don’t tend to get polled, so no one has really asked them. Second, because large-scale enfranchisements rarely have the anticipated effect.
Lowering the voting age by two years would be a piecemeal reform that could be seen as gerrymandering. The great advantage of lowering the voting age by 12 years is that it would be far less predictable. It would be comparable to the other great enfranchisements, including working men in the 19th century and women in the 20th. These changes created opportunities for all political parties and required a far more inclusive and imaginative conception of the electorate. In both cases – contrary to expectations – the Conservative party discovered how to broaden its appeal. I am not saying that would happen in this case. I am simply saying we don’t know.
Why, then, have an arbitrary age threshold at all? Why not make voting a human right – or even a birthright – and give the vote to everyone from the first day of their lives to the last? Though some political theorists have argued for this, it falls down on practical grounds, because babies and small children would need someone to exercise that vote for them. Once voting becomes a system of proxies and surrogates, it loses the simplicity and clarity of one person, one vote. I do believe in a very basic competence threshold, which is the ability to express a preference in the first place. Being in full-time education seems a reasonable way of establishing that – if you can go to school, you can put a cross against a box or press a button on a voting machine. That means you can vote.
The right to vote goes along with having a share in the fate of a democratic community and having to live with the consequences of the decisions that are made by those in power. Children will have to live with those consequences longer than anyone. If it is argued that they nonetheless do not share in the life of the community in the same way as adults, because they do not earn, or pay tax, or perform public service, we must remember that we stopped making those prerequisites of enfranchisement a long time ago. Adults can vote regardless of the taxes they do or do not pay, of the public services they do or do not perform, of whether they are net contributors to or net beneficiaries of the public purse. They can vote because we all have things in common that transcend our individual contributions. We have preferences and opinions and hopes and fears. Voting is one way – not the only way, and by no means always the most effective, but still one of the most important – to be heard. Children deserve the same.
There is clear evidence that children feel more strongly about some questions than older voters. Education ranks highly as a priority for young and old, but environmental concerns are a far greater priority for the young. This may be because younger people – with a life ahead of them – have longer time horizons. Or it may be something else: fashion, peer pressure, groupthink. It doesn’t matter. Preferences are preferences, interests are interests, and the fact that they emanate from children does not invalidate them. All preferences should count. It would be better for everyone if they did.
Giving children the vote would not, contrary to many people’s expectations, be transformative. Mass enfranchisements rarely are. The same kinds of people still end up getting elected, because the incentives for becoming a politician do not change. As the old saying goes, if voting really changed anything, they would abolish it. But voting still matters. I am not arguing for six-year-olds to be in parliament, which would be revolutionary (and, frankly, a little mad). I simply believe that everyone should be able to take part in the electoral process, and to have an opportunity for politicians to ask them what they think and to take account of what they say in constructing their political programmes. Put that way, it is a far less radical idea than it sounds.
Some things would change. Climate politics would probably rise more rapidly up the political agenda. Time horizons for some political decisions might alter. Politicians would have a wider range of views to consider. I do not believe that anyone involved in this newly expanded democracy would become a better person as a result. Politics would still be a cutthroat business. Children would no more be improved by taking part in elections than adults are. This is not about giving children a civics lesson – electoral democracy has never been about that. Giving children the vote would not let children control the future – the adults would still be in charge. But it could invigorate our democracy, improve it, vary it, leave it a little less ossified, a little less predictable, a little less stale.
It might also help bridge the generational divide. In some ways, children do inhabit a different planet from the rest of us. We don’t watch the same TV programmes as they do, unless we have no choice. The lives of six-year-olds are deeply mysterious to most adults. That is a large part of why democratic politics should at least be open to their perspective. But at the same time, children don’t live apart from older generations. They don’t migrate to places where they can pursue the lives they want to lead. They are forced to coexist with the grownups. However much they might prefer it otherwise, they have to listen, if only because the grownups still get to call the shots. Children talk to their parents and grandparents, their teachers and guardians. The adults don’t always listen in return, though it would be far better if they did. But the conversations are real, which is the precondition of democratic politics.
The political theorist John Wall, in his forthcoming book Give Children the Vote, writes of the enfranchisement of the roughly one-quarter of the population to whom it is routinely denied: “It is vital to making contemporary societies more democratic. It is the only way to pressure political leaders to respond to the lived experiences of all instead of just some of the people. It is the only way to make the franchise fully just and effective … It is not the answer to everything. But it must be part of the solution. Things need realigning and this is arguably our best hope for doing so. No politics is ever perfect. But if societies want to be truly democratic, they need to overcome their engrained biases and embrace the whole human community.”
The pandemic has given an opportunity to rethink assumptions that we take for granted. Political choices that would have seemed impossible two years ago have become routine. Why, then, does universal suffrage remain out of bounds?