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Artillery Row

Remove the kid gloves

“Votes for 16-year-olds” has exposed our incoherent attitude towards young people

George Carlin disagreed with the old saw that if you didn’t vote you had no right to complain about the government. “If you vote and you elect dishonest, incompetent people and they get into office and screw everything up — well, you are responsible for what they have done,” the American comedian said.

For any moaning adolescents eyeing up Labour’s election promises, consider yourselves warned. Take up Keir Starmer’s offer of casting a ballot at 16 or 17, and you’ll be as complicit as the rest of us in what comes next.

Of a piece with the boring radical centrism we will soon be hearing a lot about, a change to the voting age would be the most significant shift to the franchise since 1969, when the threshold was dropped from 21 to 18. Back then we were at the front of the pack for the change; even now we’d be in the vanguard, alongside pioneers in Latin America and provinces like Wales and Scotland.

The idea is understandably popular with the progressives who would gain those youth votes. Caroline Lucas, the sole Green MP who is stepping down at the coming general election, argued for it back in 2017 as a means of scuppering the previous year’s vote to leave the EU — not that she’d put it quite like that.

The Scottish National Party’s desire to include 16-year-olds in their own independence referendum was based on similar cynicism, and you can expect Labour’s psephologists have looked at the polling data and drawn the same conclusions. Of course, it’s only vote rigging when the other side does it.

And unusually for a party who only exists because you no longer need to own a country estate to vote, the cover story is that it’s about taxes. “If you can work, if you can pay tax, if you can serve in your armed forces, then you ought to be able to vote,” as Starmer said on the campaign trail, invoking the spirit of a peeved Boston tea salesman.

If you think these thoughts are unfinished, you’re right. If paying tax is what matters, surely the rich deserve more votes? And shouldn’t the eight-year-old buying standard VAT rated sweets from hard-earned pocket money also get to cast their ballot? No doubt a denizen of Tufton Street has a ready-made market-based solution to most efficiently allocate the votes.

To quote Carlin again: it’s all bullshit, and it’s bad for you

Others have previously argued that given 16-year-olds are likely to outlive other voters, if anything they deserve more of a say. Jeremy Paxman once floated the idea that we put an age cap on voting. I suppose given the recent progressive enthusiasm for euthanising the terminally ill, being struck off the electoral roll is an acceptable compromise.

To quote Carlin again: it’s all bullshit, and it’s bad for you. While there’s a meaningful distinction between minority and majority, bridged by the awkward teenage years, the specific number is arbitrary. You can make the case for 16, sure, but you could as well make it for 14, 21 or even 25 — the age when the hot-heads of youth start to cool.

And yet even aside from the blatant electoral cynicism, there’s something else suspect about those who support votes for 16. In every other area of life we are becoming more committed to treating young adults like children.

Even the alleged Conservative prime minister Rishi Sunak supported the campaign to create a “smokefree generation”. While it has fallen victim to the early general election call, you can expect Labour’s zealous health secretary Wes Streeting to waste little time in stubbing out the tobacco industry when he takes office.

In fact they can’t even be trusted with comparatively benign vapes

This is to say that Labour reckons a 16-year-old deserves a say in running the NHS, but not their own health. In fact they can’t even be trusted with comparatively benign vapes, long criticised for targeting teens with — er — bright colours, saccharine flavours and fun product names.

Kids these days can’t even poison themselves anymore without a meddling official ruining the fun. Indeed, we’re increasingly wondering whether they should be trusted with the giddy thrills of doom scrolling — calls growing louder and louder to restrict smartphone use until kids are at least 16.

It is not even life’s pleasures that young people are increasingly removed from. Since the days of the last Labour government we’ve done our best to prevent them from getting those jobs that Starmer thinks confer voting rights, with English students now obliged to stay in mainstream education or some other training until they are 18.

And for half the population who go onto university, the paternalist state doesn’t even let go then. A series of student suicides has led campaigners to call for higher education providers to have an enhanced duty of care towards their charges — furthering the impression that British universities are glorified boarding schools.

More and more Brits’ twenties are a second adolescence, beginning with loan-funded indolence at university, before begrudging enrolment in a graduate scheme while you wait for a relative to die so you can put down a deposit on a house. Margaret Thatcher’s party has contrived to turn all 20-somethings into failures as they spend the first decade of adulthood on the proverbial bus.

Labour will have a hard task reversing that, but they could throw in a few trinkets as a reward for visiting the polling station early. If a 16-year-old can vote, why not let them buy some fireworks on their way to the tattoo parlour as they seek a new brand identity for their OnlyFans account?

And should Starmer be willing to be more radical, I have a few suggestions to give 16-year-olds a taste of adult life. Rather than merely reverting the age marriage is allowed to 16, we could make it compulsory, with kids tying the knot before starting their year of mandatory military service in preparation for World War Three. Votes or no votes, there’d be plenty for the youth to complain about.

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