Monday, July 26, 2010

If you're good enough, you're old enough (or young enough)

In a new post, Subrosa argues that there should be a minimum age for elected politicians. I entirely agree - and that age should be eighteen. (Arguably it should be sixteen if the voting age is reduced.)

In a way it's strange that I reacted so strongly against Subrosa's suggestion of a minimum age of thirty, because last year I objected equally strongly to Greg Callus' article on Political Betting arguing that 15-20% of MPs should be under the age of thirty, in line with demographic shares. But that was mainly on the basis that it reeked of positive discrimination. Because in practice most people would not put themselves forward as parliamentary candidates - let alone have a realistic chance of being selected - until at least the age of about 23 or 24, Callus was effectively (whether he realised it or not) arguing for the 23-29 age group to be obscenely over-represented in the Commons. His idea also seemed to be pandering to the cult of youth that's become far too prevalent in UK politics. It's extraordinary to recall that a 72-year-old was one of the two leading candidates in the last US presidential election, given that in the current Labour leadership race all of the 'serious' candidates fall within the peculiarly narrow age range of 40-45.

But if there's one thing worse than inappropriate positive discrimination, it's...well, discrimination, of the plain common or garden variety. We're thankfully moving into a new era of legal protection against age discrimination in the workplace, mainly designed to help older people, so it would seem bizarre in the extreme to suddenly start discriminating against adults who are quite mature and 'experienced' enough to make the decision to fight and die for their country, or to bring a new life into the world. Frankly, in comparison to those choices, which futile EDM to sign or how obsequious to be to the whips seem relatively trifling matters.

I'm being flippant, of course, but there's a serious point here. When I see Subrosa claim that someone under the age of 30 lacks the necessary life experience to be an MP or councillor, I can't help thinking that she's misconstruing the nature of the job. There's no doubt that being a member of parliament is an incredibly hard job with terrible hours, and one that carries considerable responsibility. But it's not an executive or leadership role. There's no reason why a diligent and dependable person with relatively limited life experience shouldn't do the job a hell of a lot better than someone twice or three times their age who happens to have an attitude problem. Jo Swinson was first elected at the age of just 25 - and for all her faults (most notably that she's a Liberal Democrat) I have a sneaking suspicion most thinking people would take her as their MP over a bog-standard central belt Labour specimen any day of the week.

Of course, Subrosa is right to point out that Kyle Taylor should never have been elected as a councillor. But that's because he was the wrong sort of person, not because he was the wrong age. To put his failings down to his youth is as lazy a stereotype as suggesting that all older people lack vigour and dynamism, or that all overweight people are unemployable because they lack self-discipline. The beauty of the democratic process is that the electorate can assess each candidate on his or her merits - arbitrarily limiting their scope to make that choice (and indeed to make mistakes on occasion) would be a retrograde and deeply unenlightened step.

If you're good enough, you're old enough - and if you're good enough, you're young enough. End of story.


  1. I hate discrimination of any kind. Old, young, gay, straight, ethnic minorities, pure bred Brits, women, men! Where would it end? Fat/thin, bald/hirsute, ugly/handsome?

    I doubt that a 16 or 18 year old would be able to do the job. Chances are they wouldn’t be elected, so chances are they wouldn’t be selected!

    But then I'm not certain that the average 55 year old is good enough either. Gordon Brown?

    Most MPs seem to have been able to work out how to cheat on their expenses, do what the whips say and make ill thought out, badly presented speeches, doubtless aided in this by the fact that there are bars in their place of work, and do pretty much nothing about any complaints and concerns that their constituents have. Would an under 30 be able to do that? Yep, probably.

    You have to ask yourself would you prefer a well presented 16, 20 or 25 year old to Margaret Moron... or Moran?

    No discrimination of any kind is acceptable. Both houses should represent the population, and the best way to decide that is to let the people decide.

    Clearly in the Commons that, to a limited extent, is what happens. Obviously the House of Lords should be binned tomorrow.

  2. I agree, Tris. It's simply not necessary for the law to discriminate anyway, because (as you pointed out) a kind of 'natural filter' comes into play. At the last election, the minimum age was 18, but I believe the youngest person to actually be elected was Pamela Nash at 25. The minimum age for a US presidential candidate is 35 - an utterly superfluous rule. There's never been a president younger than 42.