Where are the elder politicians?

5th January, 2012 9:55 am

There are many similarities between the leaders of the three main parties. They’re all men, they’re all white, they’re all university educated and they’re all wealthy. They’re also all young. Just three years separate David Cameron (45) from Ed Miliband (42). Compare this with arguably the two greatest leaders of Labour and the Conservatives, Clement Atlee and Winston Churchill, who were 63 and 65 respectively when they became Prime Minister.

The trend towards younger politicians isn’t restricted to the leaders. The average age of the shadow cabinet, for example, is 48. Atlee’s cabinet had an average age of just over 60, and, more recently, Thatcher’s 1987 cabinet had an average age of almost 54. Why is this? After all, this trend is the complete opposite to the increase in average age of the UKworkforce and population. Ben Bradshaw is pretty clear on why politicians are getting younger:

“The way modern politics and government work, you need levels of youth, energy, stamina and endurance. Both political parties, the media and the public seem to want leaders with those qualities.”

I wouldn’t argue with Bradshaw that politics requires energy, stamina and endurance, but why should older politicians be less capable of that than younger ones? It certainly hasn’t affected other professions where similar attributes are needed. Look at football for example. It has had to adapt to the rigours of a 24-hour media and often vociferous attention from both press and public. But that hasn’t led to the average age of football managers decreasing. Quite the opposite. Arguably the two most important football managers in theUK, Sir Alex Ferguson (70, Man Utd) and Fabio Capello (65,England) are both far older than the three party leaders.

Richard Darlington also believes younger politicians are the order of the day:

“Forty-something is just right for a modern leader. It shouldn’t matter, but in politics it does… Having young, school-age children also helps. It conveys to the electorate a sense of experience of the NHS and schools. Both Milibands, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham all fall into this category… Younger leaders look inexperienced but older leaders look past their best.”

Darlington’s argument seems to be backed up by the press’s treatment of Ming Campbell when he was leader of the Liberal Democrats, but was that genuinely reflective of public opinion? I’m not sure it was. And I’m not at all convinced that the public has dictated to Westminster that it wants leaders in their mid forties. It’s more that the leaders have convinced themselves of that.

What then do we lose when senior politicians are viewed as ‘past their best’? Writing in 2009, Andrew Tyrie, Conservative MP for Chichester, believes much:

“[G]overnment policymaking [is now] in the hands of people with inadequate experience to tackle the immediate challenges of recession, as well as the long-term erosion of public finances and Britain’s economic performance.”

Tyrie’s idea that a more experienced politician would be better equipped to tackle our current economic woes misses the point. It’s not that older politicians are necessarily better at dealing with the political issues of the day, it’s that they are just as capable as younger politicians at dealing with them. By relegating older politicians out of frontline politics, an example is set to the country as a whole that older men and women are inadequate in comparison with their juniors – at a time when people are working to more advanced ages.

Much is said about trying to make frontline politics more representative of British society. If we’re committed to that aim older MPs have a big role to play. The perception that an older person cannot be dynamic and energetic is false and it’s the kind of ageist thinking that really has no place in our politics.

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  • Anonymous

    TV debates have changed the game forever…it all about how you look not what you say or do…

    • Anonymous

      Sad but true. It has become a branch of light entertainment. Cameron and Clegg, and most especially, Blair prancing around TV studios wearing more make-up than amateur chorus boys.

      It’s absurd – to  try to look young an innocent some of them look as if they have been embalmed.

  • Anonymous

    It is no coincidence that since politicians have been getting younger this is reflected in their lack of maturity and experience – coming down from Oxford and spending a year as a “researcher” to an MP or shadow minister is no compensation for learning about real life.

    One example: men of Heath and Wilson’s generation knew the true ugliness of war – one of the reasons TEd Heath gave for wanting to join Europe was so that never again would we go to war with Germany. Harold Wilson had the guts to say no to Vietnam and Johnson.

    Blair, and his jejune backbenchers, and whomever happened to be Tory leader that day and his naive backbenchers had, in the main, never been in the Services and all they knew of war was the old John Mills and Jack Hawkins films on the telly on rainy Saturday afternoons.

    Perhaps if politicians had more maturity and experience some of us wouldn’t laugh so much when their attempts to be know-it-alls comes adrift

  • Jonathan Roberts

    Excellent article.  Parliament’s treatment of Sir Menzies was disgraceful.  Parliament has the responsibility to help older people have dignity and respect in old age, but it can only do so if it has the moral authority to lead.

    I disagree with most of what Menzies Campbell had to say, but noone can deny his wisdom and experience make an important contribution to any debate.

    The term ‘respect your elders’ used to be drummed into us all as kids, perhaps it’s time we remembered why.

    • Anonymous

      “The term ‘respect your elders’ used to be drummed into us all as kids, perhaps it’s time we remembered why”

      Of course, you always do that yourself, Jon, don’t you?. I have personal experience of your “nice” ways 🙂

  • Anonymous

    In the end your looks are important, Wilson did not wear the clothes he did or smoke a pipe on TV, he did not speak the way he did without  having a reason. Wilson was seen as being working class, he fitted the manager at your local factory, people related to the arm patches, to his pipe to his whole look.

    Kinnock comes along into a new world of politics and he looked like your local grocer and even with the Tories in horrendous state he could not pull it off, and he should have walked it because the people did not relate to his voice, to his dress, to his style.

    Blair came in at a time when we were desperate to be seen as new young out going, and Blair fitted this to the tee, he was young he had ideas, he had ideals, he spoke the words the country wanted to hear, no more sleaze labour would be whiter then white, he would ensure this, sadly that was bull as we soon found out.

    Does Miliband look like a winner, this is what it’s all about in the end, do the people see the Miliband as a bloke who would be able to pull this country out of the mess it’s in and right now looking at him I’d say not unless he  hiding something, to me he looks like labour when Thatcher was in power, on the other Hand Cameron is no Thatcher.

    we do have a two political party country labour and the Tories and it’s a pity, but if you had to vote to save this country  right now today looking at Cameron and Miliband, looking at the front benches of both, Jesus the country is in trouble.

    I suspect we have the weakest two leading parties i have seen since Major took over a bunch of people who came into politics because basically none of them had an idea of how to run a business and they all came into Politics because they could not do anything else.

  • Good article. Politicians are now generally much younger than those who seek to influence them from business, industry, professions, media etc etc. They often come across as callow and lacking in life experience and thus are taken less seriously than their predecessors in past generations. 

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