Sarah Sands: Yes, the voting age should be changed – to 25

Gordon Brown has got it wrong about youth

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Intrigued by Gordon Brown's proposal to lower the voting age to 16, I consulted a small focus group of teenagers to determine electoral patterns. The group grew smaller by the minute as their attention drifted away to the latest episode of Glee or 90210 or multiple versions of talent shows or football or sex. Others just went back to bed.

A 16-year-old girl said that she preferred Labour because they were less mean to people. She didn't much like Gordon Brown and, exercising the individual consumer choice which is the prerogative of her generation, did not see why she couldn't have Dave Cameron as a socialist. Actually, she sighed, both men were not so hot right now. She would prefer to see a woman, closer to her own age, who she said could reflect her interests more sympathetically. Alexa Chung would do the trick.

It may be that Gordon Brown is being high minded about the idealism of youth. Wasn't it the young who rose up to make Barack Obama President? Parents who, left to their own impulses, rather liked the worn, wisecracking appeal of Hillary Clinton or even John McCain deferred to their children.

But Brown is mortal, and I fear his calculation is political. Most 16-year-olds are wholly subsidised and mildly aggrieved. Their feelings are paramount. Claire Fox, of the Institute of Ideas, told me that she wants to yell at the young people she meets: "I don't care what you feel, I want you to think." Which political party do you think benefits from kind-hearted, soft-headed adolescents who barely poke their noses out from under their duvets?

No wonder David Cameron wants wholesale political re-education for 16-year-olds, in the form of non-military national service. Like a Jesuit who has arrived a little late, he believes that camping and community service can shape a child for life. Effy from Skins re-emerges as Zara Phillips. Russell Brand is reborn as Bear Grylls. It is the most ambitious attempt at generational social engineering that I have seen.

It is true that fresh air is a political weapon, but it is an uphill struggle. In the absence of Matthew Arnold, Tories have pretty much given up on youth, believing that they have to bide their time. As Margaret Thatcher said, it is the facts of life that turn out to be Tory.

It is one thing to distort votes through boundary changes, another to penalise age groups. Universal suffrage is a wonderful abstract – like freedom or love. If you start to question it you can quickly become mean spirited. But the truth is that all adult rights would benefit from a delay. You would solve many social ills by deferred consent. If you could drive at 25, procreate at 25, drink at 25, you have pretty much solved the broken society.

Most people at 16 do not seek political participation. They have other things on their minds. Political views tend to be either reflections of their parents' habits or violent rebellions against them. Nothing is settled when you are 16. As a sorrowful expert on sexual diseases opined on the Today programme last Friday, yearly screening is no good for teenagers; it cannot keep pace with them.

In the same way, it is rare to get a considered political view from this age group. Is it fair to hold them to account? Just as they come to regret their tattoos, will their votes for the Monster Raving Loony Party seem so funny five years on? Stuart MacLennan, the Labour parliamentary candidate who wrote about "chavs" and "coffin dodgers" and described other MPs in fewer letters even than the Twitter limit, can tell you all about the folly of youth.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'

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