Too dumb, too young: who’s qualified to vote?

Sunday 29 October, 14:0015:30, Frobisher 1-3Battle for Education

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The electoral franchise has, in different ways, become increasingly contentious in recent years. Some argue, for example, that the voting age should be lowered to allow more progressive youthful voices to decide the future. There have been denunciations of ‘low-information’ voters, who are allegedly manipulated by lies and algorithms. The Brexit vote was swung, it is argued, by uneducated older voters. In this year’s general election, one of the shocks was university students toppling longstanding Tory candidates. These different events and debates seem to confirm what psephologists and commentators tell us in relation to recent elections and referendums in Europe and North America: the main divisions are now between the well-educated and the poorly educated.

The evidence of new divisions seems compelling. In last year’s presidential election, 71 per cent of white male voters without a degree voted for Donald Trump; just 23 per cent voted for Hillary Clinton. In the EU referendum, 60 per cent of voters who did not go to university voted to leave. According to Professor David Runciman, all the figures show that it was ‘education – or the lack of it’ that propelled the ‘Trump bandwagon’. A report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation earlier this year confirmed that ‘educational opportunity was the strongest driver’ of the Brexit vote. David Goodhart’s much discussed new book, The Road to Somewhere, also notes that education is a key component of new social divisions. Those who might primarily identify with Somewhere are ‘middling income, having left school before doing A-levels’, while the average Anywhere is a ‘liberally-inclined graduate’.

Some fear that ‘the education gap is tearing politics apart’, and will lead to mutual acrimony and distrust. As Runciman notes, ‘the less-educated fear they are being governed by intellectual snobs who know nothing of their lives and experiences’, while the ‘educated fear their fate may be decided by know-nothings who are ignorant of how the world really works’.

Others worry about the revival of anti-democratic sentiments of ancient lineage and a newly fashionable regard for the idea of philosopher kings. In classical Athens, Plato famously proclaimed that most people were not sufficiently intelligent or educated to be entrusted with a vote in the affairs of the city state. But did Plato have an unpalatable but reasonable point, particularly in an era when many fret about ‘fake news’? On the other hand, the Levellers, the Chartists and the Suffragettes all made major contributions to the emergence of popular democracy in Britain, but were all denied access to higher education.

Perhaps citizens need education in democracy or more education to realise their role in democracy. But if so, what sort of education should that be? Would 16 and 17-year-olds be better equipped to vote after citizenship classes, or would this lead to political ‘grooming’ by their teachers, as one opponent alleges? To what extent should it concern us when the former head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, asserts that the Brexit vote to leave the EU was inextricably linked to poor school performance in north of England schools? With an emphasis on education for democracy, how do we avoid writing off those who do not perform well academically, with the assumption that their views can be sidelined? Why is it assumed that ‘those five years of study between 16 and 21’ create more informed, broadminded decision-makers?

Does a university degree course – often of a highly specialised character – increase knowledge of public affairs? Are the young students of the university town of Canterbury, who came out in force to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, more qualified to vote than poorly educated working-class voters in Mansfield who continued to vote for Brexit candidates in the General Election? When it comes to ignorance and prejudice, on which side of the new educational divide are such traits more likely to be found?