Yes, it is true that in both Houses women are still woefully underrepresented, as are black people, those belonging to ethnic minorities, and the LGBTQ community. However, most striking of all is the underrepresentation of young people in Parliament, despite the fact that the vast majority of legislation made in the two chambers directly affects young people’s present and future lives.
Following the 2010 election, just 14 MPs were elected to the Commons under the age of 30. This represents a mere 2% of the membership of the lower House, in a country where young people aged 16-34 make up 25% of the population.
In the upper chamber, the age bias is even more pronounced. Not a single Peer is under the age of 30, while an astonishing 373 of them are over the age of 70. This despite the fact that a Peer need only be older than 21 to qualify for a seat.
A number of arguments have been made to justify the effective barring of young people from Parliament. Unsurprisingly, many of them revolve around the suggestion that young people are incapable of performing the work of an MP or Peer, and lack the real-world experience necessary to navigate the hallowed halls of Westminster. Some would also no doubt claim that young people are politically incompetent, and pose an electoral liability to their parent party. David Cameron must have thought this after Chole Smith’s disastrous Newsnight interview (she was former ‘Baby of the House’, at 27, after her election in 2009).
However, similar arguments were made in decades past to justify excluding women from the franchise. Liberal PM Herbert Asquith claimed that there was no place for women in “the dust and turmoil” of the political world, and even as late as 1920- after they had been granted the vote- argued that they were “a dim, impenetrable lot, for the most part hopelessly ignorant of politics, credulous to the last degree, and flickering with gusts of sentiment like a candle in the wind.”
Compare this to some of the comments made in response to eighteen-year-old Kate Taylor’s challenge for a seat on Plymouth City Council this May. One stated that “she should be a tea-maker whilst learning the ropes. I’ll be amazed if anyone takes her seriously.” Such snipes are characteristic of the attitudes the wider electorate holds towards young politicians. Seemingly anyone under the age of 30 who puts themselves up for election is denounced as a self-serving “career politician” by the media, held in contempt by the electors, and sneered at by everyone for their supposed pretentiousness.
Yet at the same time political scientists, MPs, and the more astute commentators in the media bemoan the lack of youth engagement in politics and agonise over the fact that our democracy is in danger of stagnating under the control of an ever-growing rump of “grey voters” over 60 years of age.
I believe that in order to inspire young people to vote, we need to offer them candidates who can truly represent them. An influx of young politicians at all levels of governance will provide a pantheon of role models who young people will want to connect with, and who will be capable of motivating them to get engaged in the political process.
Labour should lead the way by piloting under-30 shortlists in council wards where there is a high density of young people, and then expanding the scheme to encompass parliamentary selections in specially identified seats.
The party will have to take a leap of faith that other sections of the electorate will not be put off voting by the youthfulness of these candidates. Labour will need to make the case for their inclusion- perhaps starting by flagging up that current and past MPs well into their forties and fifties fiddled expenses, accepted bribes from lobbyists, and generally acted in an immature fashion when entrusted with the public good.
Women-only shortlists proved contentious in their time, and still do today. Under-30 shortlists will no doubt prove the same. However, it is up to Labour to bite the bullet and embrace them wholeheartedly if they truly want to become the party that bests represents the whole of Britain.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog