Capping The Voting Age: The Wrong Method To Achieve A Positive Outcome

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece looking at Jeremy Paxman’s suggestion to cap the voting age in order to create a fairer society in the UK.

After a period to reflect on the proposal, and after speaking with a number of people on the topic, I have realised that what Paxman suggests is not a “progressive policy”, but is instead a highly undemocratic one.

Though the policy, if introduced, would create a higher proportion of left wing voters in the election turnout and result, which would be of benefit to the Left and it’s supporters, the means by which it would reach such an outcome are not in line with the belief in a free and fair society.

Essentially, though it may produce a positive outcome, it is the wrong method of reaching such a result.

Much of the initial article still holds true; the over 65s are more right wing than other demographics; they do have a higher number of voters and they are more likely to vote; and such a skew in voter participation does then shift the results unnaturally in the favour of the more right wing parties. But, having said this, denying the over 65s the vote is not the solution to these obstacles.

Root cause analysis teaches us not to tackle the symptoms of a problem, but instead get to the heart of it. In the instance of UK politics and elections, the problem is not that the over 65s, who are typically more right wing than other demographics, are more engaged in the democratic system, the problem is that other demographics are not engaged.

If the first issue is that voter turnout for the over 65s is high, then this situation needs balance by ensuring that voter turnout for younger generations is also high.

And if the subsequent issue is that the older generations vote for more right wing policies and parties, then we need to understand why this is the case and seek to reverse it.

Preventing the over 65s from voting tackles neither of these issues.

Quite rightly many who I spoke to about Paxman’s suggestion, and my article on the matter, argued that the policy proposal was ageist. In a society whereby the elderly and the older generations are already looked down upon, discriminated against, or generally ignored, it would be a terrible initiative that would only seek to alienate these valuable citizens further.

One respondent, Farrah Deen, said that she wouldn’t want to be told her views were unimportant simply because of her age. Quite rightly she criticised Paxman and myself by saying: “it’s not only taking away a right that women and men have died for… It is saying that future generations of people who are making a difference right now won’t have that right to make a difference just because they hit a certain age.” Continuing she said: “I think it’s a huge insult to say once we hit a certain age our opinions no longer matter”.

Deen is absolutely correct in what she says, and it was after speaking with her, and a number of others, that I realised that one could entertain an idea, without having to accept it.

In my initial article I failed to provide a deeper analysis of the topic at hand, and instead accepted at face value a proposal which would provide a quick fix to the problem. The introduction of Paxman’s proposal to cap the voting age is a negative action in terms of democratic growth and responsibility.

Of course myself and Paxman, are not alone in recognising the problem with having a larger turnout of elderly voters. This OpenDemocracy article by Craig Berry highlights the same concerns as I had, but goes deeper in its analysis of the problem which has been labelled, somewhat crudely, as the “grey vote”.

Berry sees an ageing population as a potential democratic crisis as the power of the growing “grey vote” means that “those who are the most affected by long-term policy changes may have the smallest voice in determining their future.”

He also states that as a democracy, we are entering “uncharted territory” whereby the voting age distribution is no longer pyramid shaped and is in fact seeing somewhat of an inversion of this. As this trend continues the crisis could deepen and Berry believes that we may well see that maintaining a pyramid shaped age distribution during elections is a “hidden foundation of representative democracy”, and that without it representative democracy cannot work.

Berry makes a number of suggestions to counteract this problem, but unsurprisingly he does not suggest capping the voting age, despite the fact it may well bring about the desired result. Modern society already fails to adequately provide for the older generations and denying them the democratic power to voice their concerns and opinions may be seen as a dangerous continuation of that trend.

The “grey vote” is one of the most important demographics in elections, and as was shown in my last piece, effectively swung the result from a poor Labour campaign to a more coordinated Conservative one, handing the Tories a majority for the first time since 1992.

In October 2012, a survey conducted by ICM for the charity Age UK shows that concern for the treatment of the elderly comes third in English voter priorities behind only the economy and the NHS. Some 19 million people in England described themselves as “very” or “extremely” worried about how they, their family, and friends will be looked after in old age.

Despite the numerous crises that face the older generations in the UK, the ruling classes, or The Establishment, as Owen Jones labels them, has done a fantastic job of maintaining and even growing support from the grey voters, whilst at the same time dismantling all of the services which they rely on.

As with all packages that society has been coerced into swallowing, propaganda, division, and fear has left the majority of the older generation focused on issues which have no real impact on them. Whilst they are worrying about the “swarm of migrants” coming to the country, their services are being removed from them one by one in a classic policy of misdirection. “They are the enemy. They are the problem. Focus on them”.

In research conducted before the 2015 General Election, Britain Thinks analysed the “grey voters” and their intentions. The overarching themes that came from the analysis showed these voters to be “cautious” and “resistant to cultural change”, whilst they “saw themselves as “savvy”, “sensible”, and “sceptical” about their household finances and health”.

Immigration was the primary concern for these voters, above even the NHS and the economy, with 31% of adults over the age of 55 saying that it was the “single most important issue facing Britain today.” According to British Social Attitudes 2013 survey, some 81% of 55-64 year olds and 87% of 65 year olds and over “think that immigration should be reduced”.

Such anti-immigration beliefs, held by the demographic with the most power, then help to explain why Labour hardened their stance on immigration – in the hope of attracting more elderly voters, and why UKIP has seen a significant rise in support in the last decade – their entire manifesto is based around anti-immigration.

This near obsession with immigration from the elderly voters is curious for two reasons. The first is that immigration is unlikely to affect them or their lives on a day-to-day basis, and second is that there are genuine issues which will negatively impact on them which are then relegated to a lesser priority because the issue of immigration takes precedence.

For example, the state pension age is being increased for both males and females to the age of 66 in 2020; the NHS is facing staff and funding shortages whilst having multiple areas of operation privatised – the elderly are the demographic who most frequently use NHS services of course; public transport costs have increased as council’s budgets have been squeezed and travel subsidies cut; instances of neglect and abuse within care homes are all too common; there are those who are now having to choose between being cleaned and being fed as funding for vital services falls; and most recently a Conservative led council has proposed that pensioners be charged a special fee in order to allow a council’s care workers to pick them up should they fall down at home.

Despite these attacks, the “grey vote” remains more concerned with immigration than any other topic. I suspect that such beliefs can be attributed to the role that the media plays, but without researching the topic in detail I am unable to say that with any certainty just yet. This though, would provide an interesting future line of enquiry.

Those on the Left should not pander to the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the media and the right-wing parties in order to gain an increased “grey vote”, nor too should we dismiss the elderly voters as racist or xenophobic, but it is clear that the situation cannot be ignored. With the importance of the “grey vote” it is vital that real issues become the focus of their attention, and policies that affect their day to day lives are put under the microscope.

We need to recognise why the “grey vote” concentrates on the issues that they do and whilst attempting to rectify this scaremongering and misdirection we should also be promoting electoral participation to the younger generations in order to cancel out, or at least even up, the voting playing field. A simultaneous attack is needed upon both if we are to deserve the title of democracy.

There have been numerous suggestions for promoting the younger generations involvement in elections, just some of which have been to place more emphasis on registering voters, declaring a national holiday on the day of the election, creating a more “digital democracy”, teaching political literacy in schools and colleges, or giving the vote to 16 and 17 year olds. It’s likely that a number of these initiatives, and more, are needed in order to bring more balance.

Like the role of the media on the “grey vote”, such solutions to the low turnout of younger generations is itself worthy of more time and research.

Recommended Further Reading:

“Low voter turnout is clearly a problem, but a much greater worry is the growing inequality of the turnout”

“How the growing grey vote could undermine British democracy”

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