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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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Too old, or too young? The age of our politicians shouldn’t matter


3 min read

Age is now very much ‘a thing’ in US politics. Even I hold my breath when I see Joe Biden wobble up to the microphone, so I can hardly imagine what it must be like for his Democrat supporters.

But leaving aside his “misspeaking” countries, what he actually says and does makes a great deal of sense and his team, of all ages, seems more than competent.

But a growing number of Americans have a range of worries about his age: can he communicate effectively to his country and beyond, is he confused and unreliable, will he ‘last’? There are also questions about why the Democrats can’t produce a young successor. But then the young pretenders in the Republicans have fallen like ninepins in front of their septuagenarian former president.  

I hate it when people apologise for mentioning my age. Why should it be an embarrassment?

And now the French president has appointed Gabriel Attal prime minister at the age of 34, prompting the question: “Is he too young?”

I’ve been in Parliament as a young person, first elected in my early thirties. I’m now just about to leave it as an older person, in my early seventies. 

When I first arrived I felt uncomfortable and out of place, filled with the certainty that Parliament needed to change fundamentally. Four decades later, I feel completely at ease and have seen much of that change take place, but I still think more change is necessary. 

Politics shouldn’t be the exclusive domain of the elderly, but nor should the cult of youth sweep older politicians aside. Our Parliament needs the experience of the old and the impetuousness of youth, and everything in between. Every political leadership team should include a range of ages.

But there are undeniably very different attitudes to a politician’s age depending on whether they are a man or a woman. Somehow a man always seems to be in his prime while a woman never is. The young man arriving in Parliament is seen as vigorous and energetic, and can count on at least someone identifying him as a future leader. While a younger woman is regarded as too attractive and a bit of a distraction. 

The man in his thirties or forties with a batch of children is regarded as a reassuring, family man. While a woman the same age with a young family is seen as having too much on her plate and a write-off. 

When the man reaches his sixties he’s regarded as wise, mature and experienced, but the woman is deemed ‘past it’.

I hate it when people apologise for mentioning my age. Why should it be an embarrassment? There’s nothing wrong with being 73. And if people say I look younger than that, I always question why that should be a compliment. Surely we’ve broken free of the attitude that a woman’s worth can only be judged by her attractiveness to men or by her looking as if she’s of reproductive age.   

Older MPs should not be trying to be, or look, younger. And younger MPs shouldn’t be embarrassed about their lack of experience. Our Parliament and our government needs both, and the only thing we should guard against is a monoculture which excludes either the old or the young. Our society consists of younger and older people. We are a representative democracy. The clue’s in the name. 


Harriet Harman, Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham and Mother of the House 

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