In the first article of a two-part series, Sam Dalton discusses the stark generational imbalance inherent within our political system and why it matters.
A stark generational imbalance
In today’s politics we are witnessing a democratic crisis that lies under the radar, which operates along generational lines. Yes, throngs of young people have flocked to get behind The Labour Party in recent years, and yes, there have been some recent examples of young MPs being elected. For example, the 2019 General Election gave Nadia Whittome, MP for Nottingham East, the title of ‘Baby of the House’ at the age of 23.
But when you take a step back, it becomes clear that British politics remains startlingly more favourable to the old than the young. According to the House of Commons library, the average age of MPs has been about 50 since 1979. The 2019 election did not threaten to overhaul this statistic in any way, with 49% of MPs elected over 50, compared to just 3% aged 18-29.
OK, you might think, young people are not equally represented in Parliament, but they still have an equal chance to vote every few years for their representatives. The ‘one person one vote’ principle of course remains intact. However, changing demographics mean that even at the ballot box, the odds are stacked against the young. In an ageing society in which people are living longer, the number of older voters is outweighing the number of younger voters by an ever-increasing amount.
Why the experience of young people matters
Many people argue that, before you can become an MP, you need to have gained experience in ‘real life’ first; a completely different career which opens your eyes to the wider world and stops you from jumping into the Westminster bubble too early. If a bunch of young people walk straight from the classroom or lecture hall into the House of Commons, what can they really understand about the lives of the working people they are supposedly representing?
There is undoubtedly a lot of merit to that argument. Gaining experience in another profession broadens perspectives and often enables MPs to put their specialist knowledge into practice once in Parliament. For example, someone who has a background in health or social care might be able to draw on those experiences as part of the Health and Social Care Select Committee, an all-party group relevant to health and care, or even as a Minister or Shadow Minister in this area. It is the merit of this argument that means Parliament should always have an even spread of ages in which many members are older and have more experience working outside of politics.
The problem with relying on this argument to justify the exclusion of young people from Parliament full stop is first that it is still possible to gain great ‘real-life’ experience before entering Parliament as a young person. ‘Baby of the House’ Nadia Whittome did precisely that, working in the care sector before becoming an MP, and returning to the front line during the Covid-19 outbreak.
The second problem is that the professional experience older people may have more of is not the only type of ‘experience’ we should pay attention to when it comes to electing our representatives. There are some types of ‘experience’ that younger people have to a much greater extent, and which are equally valuable.
Young people have typically grown up in structurally very different conditions from older generations. The House of Lords Select Committee on Intergenerational Fairness and Provision highlighted in 2019 that we are seeing the end of the generational income progression witnessed since the Second World War, with young people who have entered the labour market since the mid-2000s experiencing a wage slowdown. The committee’s report also says young people experience increased insecurity in work, and a continuing decline in home ownership and house affordability. The Covid-19 crisis has only heightened economic challenges for young people.
This is not to say that older people don’t face many stark challenges of their own, or that they are to blame in any way for the economic difficulties experienced by young people. But it does point to a particular set of issues that today’s young people are having to grapple with. If we are to have representatives in Parliament who truly understand what it is like to go through these challenges, we need to have more young MPs.
Part II of this series will look at how we can realise the vision of a fairer politics for young people.
Sam Dalton works in policy and public affairs, and has focused on intergenerational issues, including writing a report on 'Healing the Generational Divide' for the parliamentary group on social integration. He is Vice Chair and Campaigns Officer for his local Labour Party branch in Southwark. He tweets at @Sam_Dalton_1