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.