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Too Much, Too Young: Are MPs getting younger?

Too Much, Too Young: Are MPs getting younger?

(Illustrations | Tracy Worrall)

7 min read

Not old enough; too inexperienced - that’s the frequent complaint about the current House of Commons. But are MPs actually getting younger? Professor Philip Cowley reports.

Parliament’s golden age gleams brightly – and nowhere is this more true than when discussing the quality of MPs. Wherever you are in history, politicians in the past were always brighter, smarter, braver, more talented. RB McCallum and Alison Readman’s The British General Election of 1945 – the first in a series of books which continues to this day – noted there had been complaints about the diminishing quality of Members for “the last 15 years”. That was a House that contained Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan. 

Since the 2019 election, one frequently heard complaint has been that today’s MPs are too young and inexperienced. Too many newbies; not enough greybeards. Not like in the good old days.

Yet if you think MPs are getting younger, then I have bad news for you: it’s mostly because you are getting older. The average age of the House of Commons at every election in the last 30 or so years has barely changed, hovering at around 50, give or take a year. 

There have been some changes. In all but two parliaments since 1951, Conservative MPs have been on average younger than members of the Parliamentary Labour Party, but that difference is no longer as dramatic as it used to be; in 1964 the average Conservative MP was a full seven years younger than the average Labour one.

There are also now fewer very old MPs; the introduction of parliamentary pensions in the 1960s provided an alternative to clinging on to office for those without another income. In turn, that is one reason we have fewer by-elections than we used to: between 1945 and 1974 the Grim Reaper ended the parliamentary careers of 10 per cent of Conservative MPs and a full fifth of Labour MPs. But essentially the House of Commons has long suffered from parliamentary middle-aged spread – it is commonplace to note the under-representation of young people in politics, yet the elderly are also seriously under-represented in the Commons – and any changes over the last few decades have been relatively minor.

Where there is perhaps more truth is in the complaint that the current House of Commons is relatively inexperienced. The House elected in 2019 contained a majority with five years or less experience; just 11 per cent had been first elected before 2001.

This level of inexperience is unusual, but it is not unique. In 1945, more than half of the MPs were newly-minted, while in 1997 the figure was 37 per cent, with more than half the House having less than five years’ experience. What is different about the current House of Commons is that its relative inexperience is not the result of a single landslide but rather comes about from the culmination of a period of considerable political turmoil. The 2010 election saw a turnover of MPs almost on the scale of 1997. Less dramatically, but still significantly, there were also large turnovers in 2015 and 2019. In large part, the composition of the current House is the effect of having had four fairly dramatic elections in nine years. To note, as some do, that most Conservative MPs have never experienced opposition tells us as much about the Labour Party’s electoral track record than it does about the longevity of our parliamentarians.

Yet the electoral pendulum doesn’t tell the whole story. This becomes clear if you focus just on MPs who choose to leave the House, where the vicissitudes of the electorate matter less.

The median parliamentary experience of those retiring in 2019 was 18 years. (Here I am ignoring breaks in service, although the overall results will be essentially the same however you calculate it). Go back almost two decades to 2001, and the average retiring MP had served 20 years. Go back a further 30 or so years to 1970 and you find the figure was also 20 years.

A reduction of two years on average doesn’t sound like much, but at both the top and bottom end of the experience range there have been changes in the behaviour of MPs.

Inexperience might well lead to naivety but it can also bring innovation; experience may bring about sagacity, but it can also lead to ossification.

In 2019, almost a third (32 per cent) of those departing the Commons out of choice had less than a decade’s experience, while around a quarter (23 per cent) had 25 years or more under their belts. But in 2001, the equivalent figures were 15 per cent and 37 per cent, while in 1970 they were 12 per cent and 46 per cent. In other words, there has been a notable increase in those choosing to leave early, and an equally obvious reduction in those with very long service. In 1970, long-serving retirees were almost four times greater than those jumping ship early; in 2019 the latter outnumbered the former.

Even examining retirements isn’t entirely straight forward – because MPs can be leaving the Commons for a whole host of reasons, not all of them entirely voluntarily. Some have had encounters with their constituency parties or the boundary commission which have not developed to their advantage; others see the writing on the wall electorally and jump before being pushed. There were large numbers of retirements in 2010 – which holds the post-war record – following the expenses scandal, and in 1997, when plenty of Conservative MPs could see the electoral carnage heading towards them and left under their own steam rather than be booted out by the electorate.

But still, there obviously has been a shift in recent years. If you combine defeats and retirements, the median length of service of someone leaving the Commons in 2019 was 12 years. That compares to 14 for all those leaving the Commons between 1945 and 1974 and 18 years for those leaving between 1974 and 1992.

Is this a new trend or just a passing phase? As the Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai is said to have remarked when asked about the consequences of the French Revolution: it is too early to tell. (He was actually answering a question about the consequences of the French political protests of 1968, which makes his response much less enigmatic, but as with most of the best political quotations, the myth is much more quotable than the truth). My suspicion is that this probably is a longer-term shift in behaviour, and very long service in the Commons will continue to be less common than it was before. The possible reasons for this will be well known to most readers of this magazine – enhanced scrutiny, heavier workloads, greater public hostility – and it is not obvious these are going to change soon. We will only know for sure once we have seen a few more elections.

Either way, though, this poses a broader question. How much legislative experience do we want our MPs to have? Inexperience might well lead to naivety but it can also bring innovation; experience may bring about sagacity, but it can also lead to ossification. Nobody wants a Commons full of naïfs, but then no one wants one full of fossils either. Despite everything noted above, the average retiring MP has still served the best part of two decades. Perhaps that is long enough.

 

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

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Read the most recent article written by Professor Philip Cowley - Keeping it local: are home-grown MPs best?

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