The recent cabinet reshuffle was indicative of two main issues that are dominating the candidate nomination and selection debate in British politics. The first, which has been already widely discussed by politicians and journalists alike, is gender equality and the promotion of women to the highest levels of government. It was Tony Blair’s All-Women shortlists in the 1990s followed by Cameron’s A-lists (not all-women but aiming at boosting the number of female MPs) and the Prime Minister’s pledge to include more women in the cabinet during his term in office that removed barriers to nomination and consequently, returned a higher number of women MPs. A second notable issue is age, and as a consequence, the limited parliamentary experience of the new ministers.
The reshuffle affirmed the Prime Minister’s promise to increase the number of women ministers. Five women currently serve in cabinet while 25% of all government ministers are women. The reshuffle also shines a light on another emerging trend in British politics: the promotion of relatively novice politicians into ministerial jobs. More than half of cabinet ministers, 55%, are under the age of 50; this becomes 59% if we include the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister who are also in their 40s. The newly promoted Environment Secretary, Elizabeth Truss, is both the youngest member of Cabinet and one of the three Secretaries of State with no previous parliamentary experience, having first been elected in 2010. The average age of the cabinet members is 51 years as is the average age of all government ministers. Even the Labour and Lib Dem party leaders and prominent members of the government (e.g. Danny Alexander or Chris Huhne) have limited parliamentary experience, all being first elected in 2005.
One consequence of the emergence of the career politician is the slow but significant shift in the age at which politicians (candidates and MPs) begin their political and parliamentary career. Since the late 1970s, the British parliament has become a younger legislature. The number of MPs entering the House of Commons in their 30s and early 40s has steadily increased while the number of MPs elected for the first time in their 50s has been in decline. From 1945-1970 the vast majority (above 75% on average) of newly elected MPs were in the 30 – 50 age range. By the end of the 1970s the proportion of MPs elected for the first time in their 30s had increased substantially from 31.4% in the 1945 election to 42.2% or more at every election in the 1970s. This is especially the case in elections where there was a high turnover. For example, in 1979 the number of newcomers reached 55.8%.
In the 2010 general election, 227 MPs were elected to Parliament for the first time, one of the highest rates of newcomers in the post-war period. Two thirds of these newly elected MPs, 74%, were in the 30-39 and 40-49 age range, with 39% being elected in their 30s. The average age of this new group of MPs is 42 years old. That is significantly lower than the average age (50 years) of all MPs in the current parliament.
A closer look to the data however, shows a clear and interesting picture in terms of party variation. Labour is the party with the highest percent of newcomers drawn from the 30-39 age group (41%), while only 25% and 20% drawn from the 40-49 and 50-59 age groups respectively. It is notable that 16% of Labour’s new MPs were in their 20s. In addition, more than 80% of the Conservative party newly elected MPs were in their 30s (41%) and 40s (40%). Only 2% of the Conservative newcomers were under 30 and 15% were elected for the first time in their 50s. For the Liberal Democrats the 30-39 age group accounted for 40% of the new MPs while only 10% were elected in their 40s. Contrary to the trend manifested for the two major parties, the Liberal Democrats elected the highest proportion of MPs in the 50-59 age range (40%).
However, although there are widely available data on the age of MPs, there is rather limited data and coverage for candidates. Using data collected for parliamentary candidates selected (thus far) for the forthcoming 2015 general election by the three main parties, we are able to offer a first assessment on the age-range of parliamentary candidates and examine the relationship between candidate selection and election to parliament over time.
Overall, the 2015 candidate confirms and even reinforces previous findings. It is significant to note however, that there is a considerable degree of variation by parties. The Labour party is the party with the highest number of younger (under 30) candidates (10.8%) while the Liberal Democrats is the party with the highest proportion of oldest (50-70) candidates (48.3%). Labour candidates are among the youngest candidates selected for 2015 by all three main parties. As table 2 below shows of the 8 youngest candidates (aged up from 18-23 years) who have been selected so far, six are Labour and three Liberal Democrat candidates. In contrast, the Conservative party selects candidates with previous professional experience as 40% of the Tory selections are drawn from the 40-49 age range. Overall, evidence from previous elections as well as selections for the forthcoming general election indicate that very few candidates (1 out of 5) under the age of 30 are trusted by political parties to fight elections and even fewer are elected to parliament (2.7% in 2010).
Table 1: Age of parliamentary candidates, 2015*
|70 or over||8||6||4|
Table 2: Youngest PCs, 2015*
|Benjamin Fearn||Lib Dem||21||Derbyshire Dales|
|Amy Trevethan||Labour||22||Chipping Barnet|
|Richard Kilpatrick||Lib Dem||22||Middleborough|
|Carl Cashman||Lib Dem||22||Knowsley|
|Jack Abbott||Labour||23||Suffolk Central & Ipswich North|
*Based on data collected from publicly available sources.
Data from King, 1981 “The Rise of the Career Politician” pp. 262-3. These data include the MPs of the two main parties.