Is it just me, or are our politicians getting younger?
Writing exclusively for Endeavour Public Affairs, Professor Philip Cowley takes an in-depth look at our politicians, revealing the truth behind our perceptions of the rise of the increasingly youthful career politician. Philip Cowley is Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham. Within academia he is particularly notable for his analysis of parliamentary voting behaviour in the UK House of Commons and House of Lords. To find out more please visit www.revolts.co.uk. He is author of The British General Election of 2010 (Palgrave, 2010).
Ever look at British politicians and think: they’re getting younger. If so, I’m afraid this is mainly evidence that you are getting older. In 1964, the median age of Conservative MPs was 45. In 2010, it was 47. The median age of Labour MPs in 1964 was 52; in 2010 it was 52.
Something is going on, but it’s more complicated than a mere cult of youth.
When Ed Miliband won the leadership of the British Labour party, he became leader of his party after just one term in the House of Commons. Miliband was first elected to parliament in 2005, and had become leader just five years later.
Nor is he a one-off. For when Miliband faces David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, he takes on someone who was himself elected to lead his party after just one term in the House of Commons. And sitting next to David Cameron is the Deputy Prime Minister, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who was elected to lead his party in 2007 after a mere two years at Westminster.
Look in a bit more detail and you see just how unusual this is. Cameron is not just the least experienced of any of those to assume the leadership of the Conservative Party in the post-war period; he is the least experienced of any of the candidates to contest it in that period. The same applies for Ed Miliband and Labour. And Nick Clegg was the least experienced leader of his party, and any of its various predecessors since 1945.
There is, of course, the possibility that this trio of inexperienced leaders is merely some fluke or chance occurrence, but this seems unlikely – because when you study the contests from which they emerged victorious, all were dominated by relatively inexperienced candidates.
Examine just the top two candidates in each contest, and following the 2007 contest the Liberal Democrats would have been led by someone with just two years’ experience in the Commons; whichever of Clegg or Huhne had won, therefore, the Liberal Democrats would have been led by their least experienced leader ever (indeed, Huhne had first stood for the leadership of his party as early as 2006, less than a year after first becoming an MP). Similarly, whichever of the Milibands had won the 2010 Labour contest; Labour would have been led by someone with either five or nine years’ experience in the Commons, again a record low level of experience. For the Conservatives, it would have been four or 18 years. Of the six most likely potential winners of the last round of contests, just one (David Davis) had more than a decade in the Commons under his belt.
This is a sign of a significant change in British politics. Of the 53 candidates for the leadership of the three main political parties in the 16 contests between 1963 and 1994 only five had less than a decade’s experience in the Commons at the point at which they stood. Collectively they constituted fewer than 10 per cent of all the candidates. By the current tranche of contests, by contrast, a majority of the candidates had had under a decade’s experience in the Commons, including 83 per cent of those who came first or second in their contests.
It is not that we now necessarily prefer our politicians younger. The current tranche of leaders are younger than the post-war average but not so exceptionally younger. Ed Miliband, for example, was 41 when he became Labour leader, but so too were both Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair. Nick Clegg was 40 when he became leader of the Liberal Democrats, but so was Charles Kennedy, and David Steel and Jeremy Thorpe were both just 38 when they first led the Liberal Party. It is not the case that the leaders are inexperienced because they are young, more that they are younger because they are so inexperienced.
The explanation lies in the changing nature of ‘experience’. All three of the current leaders had significant political experience before they entered the Commons. Ed Miliband had been involved at a fairly senior level within government for at least eight years before being elected to the Commons. He may have had relatively little experience of the House of Commons at the point at which he became leader, but his broader Westminster/Whitehall experience was probably closer to 13 years than five, and therefore nothing exceptional in historic terms (on a par with Kinnock and Attlee, more experienced than Blair). Similar calculations apply to Cameron and Clegg.
Despite the recent scare about the growth of the ‘career politician’, they remain a minority in the Commons as a whole, with plenty of MPs who have a broader experience of the world. But for those who want an accelerated route to the top, the career politicians now looks like the only game in town.