Thursday, 8 March 2018

Is It Time for Young Politicians in the UK?

by Mark Docherty

Luigi Di Maio
In the latest surprise in international politics, Italy’s election has given two populist candidates the chance to be the next prime minister.  At present no party has a majority so it is likely that a coalition government will be formed.  However, whatever the makeup of Italy’s next government, it is highly likely that the prime minister will be under the age of 50.  With the political landscape so volatile at present, is it possible that the next set of anomalies to become norms will be the election of young people to high office?

The single largest party in Italy is the Five Star Movement, led by 31 year old Luigi Di Maio, while it is also possible that the next Italian government could be a right wing coalition under the premiership of Matteo Salvini, who is 44.  Although the ages of the two prime ministerial candidates might not seem especially striking to those unfamiliar with politics, it is highly unusual to have two politicians under the age of 50 as the favourites to be prime minister.  This is even more surprising when one considers that many people tipped 81 year old Silvio Berlusconi to win a fourth term as prime minister in this election, as it represents the people of Italy making a clear choice between youth and experience.

The Italian election is not the first to have thrown a relatively young candidate into high office, with Emmanuel Macron having been just 39 when he won the French presidency last year.  Macron has been a popular choice as president so far in his term, with many citing how much more in touch with the public he is than the average politician.  This was also noted by many in this country as the French president was seen on camera during France’s football friendly against England at Wembley last year joining in with a Mexican wave, with far more success than 61 year old Theresa May.  While looking natural in everyday situations is not how a politician should be judged, it undoubtedly helps the electorate identify with office holders when they seem able to act normally in public.

Jeremy Corbyn
In the UK there are currently no young parliamentarians with a chance of becoming prime minister or leading their party, yet it could be argued that a similar force could be seen in the last election.  Jeremy Corbyn may be 68 years of age, but he won the hearts of plenty of young voters last year, simply by coming across as more normal than his opponent.  The Prime Minister’s disastrous campaign earned her the nickname ‘the Maybot’, while Corbyn seemed to remind plenty of 18-24 year olds of a friendly grandparent.  60% of 18-24 year olds voted Labour in 2017, many of whom did so for the reason that they found it easier to identify with Corbyn than with May, despite the fact that the media had effectively discounted Labour’s chances.  Is this proof that personality of politicians now matters more than policy?  If so there is surely an opportunity for younger MPs to come to the fore and stake a claim to lead their party.

For the past two parliaments, the average age of MPs has been 50.  Young people remain underrepresented, in this country and around the world; a likely reason for the consistently low levels of youth turnout.  64% of 18-24 year olds voted in 2017, the highest percentage since 1992 so, if more young people are willing to turn out for an ageing Leader of the Opposition just because he reminds them of their grandfather, how motivated might they be to vote for a candidate close to their own age?  A young prime ministerial candidate might be able to motivate the youth vote to turn out for their party, while appointing an experienced Cabinet might alleviate concerns that they are too inexperienced, much like balancing the ticket in US presidential elections.  If Ruth Davidson, for example, was to be chosen as the next leader of the Conservative Party, the Tories would surely find it much easier to attract younger voters and banish their reputation for being out of touch.  It would take a brave move for members of either party to put their faith in someone young when the trend has always been to elect a veteran parliamentarian as leader, but it is one which I feel could easily be rewarded with an election victory.

The trend elsewhere seems to be that young politicians are being given a far greater opportunity to win power, yet so far Britain appears to be sticking with the tried and tested formula of experience.  However, if a party wishes to rouse the youth vote into action, they could do far worse than choose a young politician as leader, with whom the electorate could identify easily.  If one of the UK parties is willing to hedge their bets on such a candidate sparking the youth into action, I feel they would not be disappointed.

Italy’s next prime minister will be young by politicians’ standards. Will Britain’s?

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