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The David Herdson Saturday Question

June 5th, 2010

Does parliament need more youngsters?

The 2010 parliament differs from its predecessor in many ways: 35% of its members are newly elected, there are a lot more Conservatives and there are nearly twice as many ethnic minority MP’s as before, to list three. In other ways, it’s more of the same: over three-quarters are men, an overwhelming majority have a white-collar occupational background and the average age of MP’s is about fifty.

That average age is representative of adults in the UK, right between the age of majority and average life expectancy: so far, so good.

What it disguises is an almost complete absence of young MP’s: only 20% have yet to reach forty and a bare handful are in their twenties – both figures that will inevitably decline throughout the parliament. (There are few – but more – over seventy, but there are plenty of elderly in the Lords).

It’s perhaps inevitable that parliament will be dominated by the middle-aged. After all, being an MP is a responsible position for which there’s a lot of competition. However, parliament is also meant to be the voice of the nation and together with lower socio-economic groups, the young can rightly feel that their voice isn’t being heard and their interests are suffering as a result.

It hasn’t always been so. Before the Great Reform Act in 1832, it was normal for a hundred or so MP’s to be in their twenties after a General Election. Such a number might sound absurd now but would only be proportionate to the population (it would have been less so then).

Nor need it necessarily be absurd. The most frequently heard argument put against such young legislators is that they lack ‘experience’. Leaving aside the fact that the experience they gain in this interim period is often limited and duplicates that already in the House (a quarter of current MP’s were employed in politics before being elected), or that the alleged lack of experience would be balanced by the 550 or so other MP’s, the assertion itself is just not true. Each generation’s experiences are different. How many of the current House have paid university tuition fees, for example?

As an aside, the special-advisor route – an increasingly popular way into parliament – is even more cut off from the ‘real’ world than an MP is. SPAD’s have less contact with the public, deal with more specialised policy areas and inevitably more remote from parliament, which can become seen more as a stepping-stone to office as opposed to valued in its own right. That said, in as far as ministerial office is concerned, having been an MP can’t be bad training.

A final point is that the issue seems of far more concern to parties doing the selecting than the public doing the electing. The current Baby of the House, Pamela Nash, retained almost exactly the share of the vote that former Labour heavyweight John Reid won in Airdrie and Shotts; her predecessor in that role, Chloe Smith, won and comfortably held the Norwich North seat. If the public’s willing to put their trust in the right young person, shouldn’t the parties be doing likewise?

David Herdson