In November 1990 the 47-year-old John Major set a new record as the youngest British prime minister of the twentieth century. It was a record that stood all the way through to the next resident of Downing Street, the 43-year-old Tony Blair. This was the new way in British politics, setting the tone for the advent of what my L&U colleague Dan Atkinson termed the PYM, the Plausible Young Men.
You can see the trend on this graph, charting the average age of party leaders in every general election since 1900. (To be clear, these are the leaders of the three parties that registered the highest number of votes.)
Broadly, it used to be expected that you’d be at least 60 if you wanted to lead your party into an election. A peak was reached in 1951, when Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and Clement Davies averaged 71, and the graph has been on a downward slide pretty much ever since (with a little spike in 1983 for Michael Foot). At the election last year, the average was 48.
But maybe those days are passing. Today David Cameron becomes the first prime minister since the nineteenth century to leave office under the age of fifty. His successor is the 59-year-old Theresa May, ten years and eight days older than him. And last year the 66-year-old Jeremy Corbyn took over the leadership of the Labour Party from Ed Miliband, a full twenty years younger than him.
We can’t complete the trio because it’s unclear where we stand with the country’s third largest party. So far the only declared candidate for the leadership of the UKIP is Jonathan Arnott, who weighs in at an absurdly lightweight 35 years of age (he was the party’s representative in a debate on Radio 1’s Newsbeat last year), but common sense may yet prevail.
Does any of this matter? Yes, I think it does. I think it’s a key factor in why politics has become a bit strange in recent years (or gone completely off the rails, as some see it).
I wrote a piece in the New Statesman a while back about how there were so very few leading politicians born between 1955 and 1964, and how this was particularly a problem on the Left.*
In brief: there was a half-generation that came to adulthood during the Thatcher years and – for those inclined to the left – that period was a mostly miserable experience, a crushing, relentless series of defeats without even a grown-up memory of what a Labour government felt like. It all culminated in the massive victory for John Major in the 1992 election, after which large numbers simply turned away from politics altogether.
The key figures in the New Labour government were around ten years older than this: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Jack Straw, Robin Cook, Jack Straw, John Reid, David Blunkett, Charles Clarke, Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Peter Mandelson – all were born in the first decade after the war, between 1945 and 1954. But when the time came to promote younger talent, there was a gap where the next tranche should have been, and the consequence was that people got promoted into cabinet at an age that would have been considered absurdly early by the standards of a previous era.
These were the PPE graduates who’d been political advisors or maybe had worked in the media. David Miliband, Douglas Alexander, Ed Balls, Ruth Kelly, Ed Miliband, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham, James Purnell, Liam Byrne – they were from the next grouping, born in 1965-1974. And they were matched elsewhere in the Commons by the likes of David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg.
This is the demographic breakdown of all those born in the last 110 years who went on to become cabinet ministers (up to and including Cameron’s final cabinet):
43 were born in 1905-14
35 were born in 1915-24
38 were born in 1925-34
31 were born in 1935-44
47 were born in 1945-54
20 were born in 1955-64
27 were born in 1965-74
There’s a definite dip there in the 1955-64 tranche, which is even more striking when you allow for the fact that this was the largest population bulge in British history. This is what I termed the Lost Generation of 1992.
It’s worth stating again that this is primarily a problem for Labour. People of the same age who were more inclined to the Conservative cause obviously had less reason to feel disillusioned that, by the time of Blair’s 1997 victory, they’d spent their entire adult life under the eighteen years of Tory government.
So, as the PYM era perhaps comes to a close, the Conservative Party has stepped back from the youthful leadership of Cameron and Osborne. The new cabinet of Theresa May (born 1955) is likely to be dominated by the likes of Philip Hammond (1955), Liam Fox (1961), Chris Grayling (1962), Andrea Leadsom (1963) and Amber Rudd (1963). Normal service is being resumed.
In the Labour Party, on the other hand…
The party ran into the buffers with the disastrous leadership of Ed Miliband. In reaction to the catastrophic performance in the 2015 election, the membership looked for an alternative. It couldn’t find one in the Lost Generation, because the trail had gone cold, so it skipped back to the fringe members of the New Labour generation, opting for Jeremy Corbyn (born 1949). And his greatest cheerleaders were people of the same vintage: Ken Livingstone (1945), John McDonnell (1951), Diane Abbott (1953).
There has been, however, a huge growth in the party’s membership as a result first of Corbyn’s campaign to become leader and then, in the last few weeks, in defence of that leadership. And anecdotal evidence suggests that many of those joining are returnees – those who had left in previous years, demoralized by Tory victories and by Labour’s direction of travel. Many of the most passionate Corbynites are from the Lost Generation (represented at the highest level by Jon Lansman, born 1957, and Seamus Milne, 1958). Having sat out the New Labour years, they remain untainted by the compromises of power.
Now there’s a leadership election and – who knows? – maybe Corbyn will be replaced. The alternative options are Owen Smith (1970, even younger than Ed Miliband) and Angela Eagle. Now she, of course, is from the Lost Generation, born in 1961, a fact which might be seen to invalidate my entire argument.
Except that an examination of Eagle’s record suggests that there’s not really a great deal to boast of here. Twenty-four years in Parliament, thirteen of them on them on the government benches, and she never made it into cabinet. The highest office she reached was as Minister for Pensions and Ageing Society, the third ranking position in the Department of Work and Pensions. To put her achievement in context, she was succeeded in the job by Steve Webb and then by Baroness Altmann of Tottenham. Congratulations to you if these names mean anything in your household.
Is this really the best that Labour has to offer from that generation? Sadly, the answer to that is probably affirmative. There have been others, whose star has now faded – Jacqui Smith, Ben Bradshaw – and a trio who went on to work in various capacities with the Coalition government: Alan Milburn, John Hutton, Andrew Adonis. But with the best will in the world, they’re still not looking like the brightest and best.
In the post-PYM world, as the Labour Party continues to stagger towards a seemingly inevitable split, I can’t help seeing a major part of the problem being still the legacy of the Lost Generation.
* The full 20,000-word text of this piece is available as an e-book for less than the price of a Sunday newspaper.