Should the over-60s be banned from referenda?

Robert Bolt’s magnificent script for ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is punctuated by axiomatic elegance. Nowhere is this more striking than when Prince Faisal muses to Lawrence that:

“Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men – courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace, and the vices of peace are the vices of old men – mistrust and caution. It must be so.”

Brexit, too, is considered by some to be a young man’s game in which the ‘baby boomer’ generation has betrayed the true heirs to Britain’s future.

Is this a fair assessment? Well, according to YouGov polling of 5,455 people, 60% of 50-64-year-olds and 64% of over-65s elected to leave the European Union. This is compared to the 71% of 18-24 year-olds and the 54% of the 25-49-year-old demographic who elected to Remain.

Lord Ashcroft Polls, which surveyed 12,369 people, likewise found that older voters predominantly elected to leave the EU. Nearly three quarters (73%) of 18 to 24 year-olds voted to Remain, falling to under two-thirds (62%) among 25-34s. A majority of those aged over 45 voted to Leave, sharply increasing to 60% of those aged 65 and over.

Bluntly, if referenda are decisively affected by those who might not live long enough to experience the consequences, is there any merit to the argument that the over 60s should be prohibited from voting?

In a 2016 report, the centre-left IPPR think-tank warned that “Brexit is the firing gun on a decade of disruption”.  The decision to leave the EU, says the report, compounds the growing economic strains of Britain’s ageing population which is expected to rise by a third by the end of the next decade. The uncertainty of Brexit and the demographic change will result in a funding gap of £13 billion for adult social care by 2030/31 and a “structural tax gap will emerge by the mid-2020s based on current trends.”

More plainly, it would seem that those that voted for Brexit are also the ones who will place the biggest burden on its working population when Britain leaves the EU. Architect Steve Lawrence was the first to go even further, citing Office for National Statistics and Eurostat figures on British birth and death rates to calculate that 120,000 Leave voters have already died since the referendum.

Should there be a restriction then? The argument is a slippery slope. Mortality as a right to vote is arbitrary at best because age is not indicative of health nor health of longevity. Detractors will warn that as technology advances, the political franchise would suffer a tyranny of genetics that would discriminate against those who have a higher probability of illness.

Nevertheless, society already determines what you can do based on age. At 12 children are presumed to be sufficiently mature enough to instruct a solicitor in a civil case or can register as an organ donor without your parent’s consent. At 15 years and 9 months you can even apply to join the Armed Forces, but if you’re employed under the age of 25 you are exempt from the full national minimum wage requirement.

For all this, you cannot elect a Member of the Scottish Parliament until the age of 16, and even that was only lowered in 2015 to reflect the decades-long legal right of teens to have sex, leave school or get married. Absurdly, electors still need to be 18 across the UK including for the EU referendum (ignoring the paradox that 16 and 17-year-old Scots already had the right to vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum).

Contrary to five-year election cycles and shifting political sands, referenda are deployed for seismic constitutional issues with lasting consequences. Although they are not legally binding, part of the argument against continually rethrowing the referenda die is whatever the result, it will take years to quantifiably manifest. In the last fifty years, there have been four referenda (one of which was exclusive to Scotland) and none of them has been repeated since.

The moral, practical and political appetite to restrict universal suffrage makes a change unlikely, even though society already curtails rights based on age. Declining ability and the diminishment of mental faculties in elderly people have prompted regular calls for mandatory driving tests for the over 70s. Qualification for jury service stops at 65 and previous eligibility for conscription during the Second World War was capped at 51. Should these restrictions, in light of the referendum, be expanded to include voting rights and if so, how?

Photograph: ‘Age disaggregated’ / Maja Založnik

Maja Založnik, Research Fellow in Demography at the University of Oxford, has come the closest to calculating a voting model that might add some moral justification to a restriction. Amalgamating polling information from Lord Ashcroft, the 2014 electoral Commission report on registration, the live Voter Registration Dashboard and population counts and life expectancy estimates from the Office for National Statistics , Založnik has compiled a model based on how many “years left to live” each age group has and what their adjusted voting weight is.

The youngest age group, about 5.8 million people, has over 350 million years left to live which represents 19.6% of all the years left to live. This is compared to the over 65s which represent 22.6% of the adult population with 8.2% of years left to live. With this new weighting of votes, Remain would win with a two-point margin.

Photograph: ‘Votes by life expectancy’ / Maja Založnik

While the calculation is novel, it’s absolutely no basis for redacting voting rights. Surveys are arbitrary and capricious in nature, particularly given that almost all of them spectacularly failed to predict the election of Donald Trump and Brexit itself.

Indeed, proclaimed evidence that one generation has ‘screwed’ the other is tedious at best. All votes are a secret ballot and it is impossible to know who voted and why. All polling data, except the official result, is the product of sample polling by pollsters. At General Elections, representatives from political parties stand outside polling stations asking for your voting ID number. This information is then collated with other nationwide figures. However, this tends not to happen at one-off votes such as referendums.

Psephology is nowhere near advanced enough to look into people’s souls or the myriad of complexities and motivations of electors. It’s also subject to manipulation and fallaciousness: calls to restrict votes by age based on false information works both ways.

In the aftermath of the referendum, Sky Data’s polling inaccurately claimed that only 36% of 18-24-year-olds actually voted. The figure was held up as a denouement by Brexit supporters to shut down the argument that young people were betrayed by older pro-Brexit voters, as almost two-thirds didn’t vote. Finding conducted since the referendum by Opinium and analysed by Professor Michael Bruter and Dr Sarah Harrison of the London School of Economics actually suggest the turnout was closer to 64% among this age group.

While the referendum shows a compelling disparity in voting choices among age groups, it is still based on dubious evidence. Restricting voting rights by demographic is no solution because that is not the real issue – it’s the disproportionality of the First Past the Post System.

One citizen, one vote, in 650 constituencies produces spectacular divisions between seats achieved at Westminster and votes cast. In the 2015 General Election UKIP actually came third in terms of votes with 12.6%, but only won one seat. Before their time in government, the Lib Dems frequently received the lion’s share of the vote with significantly fewer seats (in 2010, Labour won 258 seats with 29% of the vote compared to the Lib Dems wth 23% but 57 seats).

More acutely, there is a democratic deficit in Scotland:  one Conservative MP was returned in 2015 and yet the nation has a government it didn’t vote for, but most of England did. In the last 70 years, Scottish MPs as an entity have had no practical influence over the composition of the UK government. Scottish seats at a UK general election have affected the outcome in only four elections since 1945 (1964, 1974 – both summer and autumn – and 2010). 

Ultimately, the history of the British political franchise is one of expansion and not psephological speculation. The parliamentary franchise was enlarged and made more uniform through a series of Acts of Parliament, also known as Representation of the People Acts, beginning in 1832 right through to Reform Act 1928 which widened suffrage and gave women electoral equality with men.

A real discussion must be had on representation in the UK, but restricting referenda by age would be a feeble solution. Change must happen, and it begins with asking if everyone’s vote, currently, truly has the same value in the eyes of the political class.

Anger and frustration should all be directed, by anyone who values their right to vote, at the UK’s deeply flawed electoral system; who it gives power to, how they maintain it, and whether referenda are just a means to an end for the political elites.

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Alastair Stewart 260 Articles

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer, journalist, and teacher based in Edinburgh and Almería. He regularly writes about politics, history, and culture for magazines across Europe.


He was formerly a press officer at the Scottish Parliament. He graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in International Relations.


Alastair founded DARROW in 2013 to support new and emerging writing talent in Scotland around the world.

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