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The Professor Will See You Now

Illustration: Tracy Worrall

4 min read

In an occasional series, Professor Philip Cowley offers a political science lesson for The House’s readers. Here: inbetweener politicians

I confess to having a slightly old-fashioned view about whether someone is old enough to be an MP: once the legal threshold is passed, it’s down to the voters. If they think you are old enough, you’re old enough. 

Yet the recent slightly confected row about the age of the new MP for Selby and Ainsty aside, there are some interesting issues involved in the representation of age. As some fascinating research published in the journal Government and Opposition noted recently, the young are under-represented in almost every parliament in the world – and whereas recent decades have seen legislatures become more socially representative in other ways, there has been little if any improvements in the representation of youth.

If you think British MPs are getting younger I’m afraid it’s just because you are getting older

As I have previously remarked in these pages, if you think British MPs are getting younger I’m afraid it’s just because you are getting older. The average age of the House of Commons at every election in the last 30 or so years has hovered at around 50, give or take a year. And note that this figure is for the age of MPs elected at each general election; the average age then goes up every year until the subsequent election, so the actual average age of the Commons is always higher than these sort of stats, by anything up to five years. 

The UK is not especially unusual in this. The Worldwide Age Representation in Parliaments dataset (WARP) – free to download and more fun than Wordle – contains data on the ages of the legislatures returned in over 800 elections, across 150 countries. Some 57 per cent of these parliaments have an average age of between 47 and 53. Parliamentary middle-aged spread is ubiquitous.  

Relative to their proportion of the population, MPs aged 40 or less were underrepresented in 91 per cent of cases. For those aged 30 the figure topped 99 per cent.

Yet you might well object (and I’d agree with you, I think) that age isn’t quite the same as some of the other representative characteristics that attract attention. It is, as the research paper noted, “a temporary state of an individual’s life”. Young people tend to grow up (it’s one of their defining characteristics) and thus move from being part of an under-represented group to one that is over-represented. That is not true of most other groups. Maybe the under-representation of the young matters, but does it matter quite as much?

Moreover, it is not difficult to understand why some voters might be wary of young candidates and prefer those longer in the tooth. Other research found that when British voters were asked what sort of parliament they wanted they preferred one with more young MPs and fewer old ones. Yet when offered a younger candidate, they tended to see them as less experienced. Yet for all that, the bigger problem here – as so often – is party selectorates, who tend to favour older candidates. 

At least up to a point. Because looking at the WARP data I was also struck by the fact that those aged 60 or over were also under-represented in over 70 per cent of cases. And although the data didn’t break down the figures for those aged over 70 or 80, you can bet this would be even worse. Again, there are good reasons for this, but it still often goes unnoticed and will become an even greater problem as populations age. Indeed, the article I mentioned earlier was on “age inequalities in political representation” – yet the elderly did not feature at all. 

Your further reading for this week: D Stockemer and A Sundström, Age Inequalities in Political Representation, Government and Opposition (2023); and, by the same authors, Introducing the Worldwide Age Representation in Parliaments (WARP) data set, Social Science Quarterly (2022)

Philip Cowley is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London

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