Isaaq Hussain on youth accessibility in UK politics
August 19, 2023
Ageism: How young MPs are battling for political recognition
Between 1979-2019, the average age of members of Parliament (MPs) at elections has been 40 to 60 years of age.
This year saw a new young person enter into the British political stage, joining a small minority of others in the same demographic.
In today’s society, their role is arguably not considered as inspirational as that of pop stars or maybe even athletes. But why not? Young MP’s seem to have an even greater fight for this interest, and for recognition in the political sphere.
Chante Joseph, a former member of the UK Youth Parliament, was quoted in a BBC article in 2016 saying that MPs are doing good work but “they don’t communicate in a way that young people understand.”
Also expressed at the time were views that young people were not being drawn into a position of becoming an MP, with politicians being seen as “not relatable.”
But has there since been a shift in such thinking in recent years or are young people still put off from joining the world of politics?
‘Baby of the House’
Younger people are involved in politics, with a UK Youth Parliament providing a voice for 11-18 year olds, but the House of Commons continues to be dominated by the middle-aged category.
And young MPs representing constituents on the latter stage have not been met with quite as warm a welcome as they might have expected, with older colleagues often quick to criticise their decisions.
There are currently 650 members in the House of Commons, 430 of these members are male and the other 220 are female. There are only 32 MPs aged 30 or under (less than 5%).
One of these MPs is Labour’s Keir Mather, who is currently the youngest MP to sit in the House of Commons, 25, and he promises to bring a “fresh start.”
His presence, however, appears to have been met with some hostility, as he has been on the receiving end of criticism, with veteran minister Johnny Mercer mocking the young MP in a Sky News interview, saying: “This guy has been at Oxford University more than he’s been at a job,” and comparing his generation of politicians to comedy TV show ‘The Inbetweeners’.
Mr Mercer added: “You’ve got to have people who have actually done stuff”.
The remarks resulted in Keir’s mother quickly coming out in defence of his age. Speaking to Sky News, Jill Tambarros said her son “does not appear to be like a 25-year-old – he’s confident, he’s mature, he’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
Mr Mercer was further criticised for his comments being “disrespectful” by Baroness Chapman.
Some members of the general public have also not been that welcoming to the 25-year-old MP, with some taking to social media with condescending messages.
Reacting to Keir’s tweet about an article in The Times on his by-election victory in Selby and Ainsty, one person mocked: “Are you on solids yet?”
And in response to a tweet by Gordon Brown congratulating him on his win, another said: “At least he doesn’t need to shave in the morning.”
Another said: “He arrives at the House of Commons with a big challenge. Let’s hope his mother walks him to the correct entrance.”
Despite these comments there appears to be an overall majority of people that have congratulated and welcomed the young MP on his success.
But ageism in politics does not seem to be a rare occurrence, as another young MP Nadia Whittome, 26, who was first elected at the age of 23 at the 2019 general election, shared her concerns via The House magazine.
Getting her view across that “Parliament needs more young MP’s”, with the overall make-up of the House of Commons not reflective of wider society.
In the article, the Labour MP for Nottingham East and the ‘former baby of the House’, provides her personal experiences by delving into the idea of young MP’s being patronised and not being taken seriously.
She contests the idea of young people being overlooked for life experience simply because of their age, and emphasises the fact that only 3% of those elected in 2019 were under 30.
She added: “Many people my age have been through experiences that few MPs have had to deal with first-hand.
“Our lives have been defined by insecurity: we’ve grown up under austerity, we’ve paid £9,000 a year in tuition fees, now my generation must contend with high rents and low pay while being shunted from place to place at the whim of landlords or forced to continue to live at home with family.
“These experiences haven’t come out of nowhere – they are the result of political decisions, and they deserve to be represented too.”
The British Youth Council has said that “currently, over 1.5 million 16-and-17-year-olds in the UK do not have a say in the decisions that will define their future”, due to them being unable to vote and being “excluded from broader political conversations”.
In a joint manifesto, the council along with The Body Shop is calling on the voting age to be lowered to 16 to include young people in the democratic system, adding: “Early enfranchisement will help ensure long-term political engagement and sustained voting behaviour throughout adult life.”
Touching on a similar subject, Nadia, in her article, said it was “clear that young people are not currently getting the representation they deserve”, pointing to a survey last year that found that 18-24 year-olds were the least likely of any age group to say that democracy serves them well.
“We badly need more MPs to fight for young people’s interests in Westminster – and who better to do it, than young people ourselves,” she said.
It comes at the same time that Mhairi Black, 28, who became an MP aged just 20 in 2015, announced although not related to age she will step down at the next election after becoming “tired of toxic Westminster.”
Speaking to the News Agents podcast, the youngest MP to be elected, said: ”Westminster I think is one of the most unhealthy workplaces you can be in and It’s a toxic environment.”
Westminster’s youngest elected MP’s
Nadia Whittome – Labour Party, elected in 2019, aged 23
Mhairi Black – Scottish National Party, elected in 2015, aged 20
David Lammy – Labour Party, elected in 2000, aged 27
Charles Kennedy – Social Democratic Party, elected in 1983, aged 23
David Steel – Liberal Party, elected in 1965, aged 26
Tony Benn – Labour Party, elected in 1950, aged 25
Roy Jenkins – Labour Party, elected in 1948, aged 27
John Profumo – Conservative Party, elected in 1940, aged 25