Youngsters take on parliament’s old guard

Next generation: Mhairi Black (right) campaigns with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon in Paisley © PA

Mhairi Black is a 20-year-old student with a football obsession and an occasionally incriminating Twitter feed. Now she is standing for parliament. Should more young people follow her lead?

The term ‘parliamentary candidate’ often conjures up images of middle-aged men in grey suits. Well, throw those preconceptions to one side and meet Mhairi Black, the 20 year-old Scottish National Party (SNP) candidate for Paisley and Renfrewshire South. Black is the youngest person running for parliament at the general election.

Though the student is a self-confessed ‘political geek’, she is otherwise remarkably normal. She says she is more comfortable in jeans than formal clothing. She passionately supports Partick Thistle Football Club. And she is most definitely 20, having faced a media storm for abusive comments on Twitter about everything from Celtic to Ed Miliband, as well as posting about her wild student nights out.

Black is up against one of Labour’s big hitters in Scotland, the shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander. Yet according to the bookmakers, she is odds on to win. The SNP surge in Scotland has meant that this previously safe Labour seat is likely to turn to the nationalists.

If Black won, she would become the ‘Baby of the House’ — the nickname given to the youngest MP in the House of Commons, now held by Labour’s Pamela Nash, who was elected at the age of 25. But Black is not the only candidate vying for the title. There is also Robin Hunter-Clarke, UKIP’s 22-year-old candidate for Boston and Skegness, one of the party’s top targets. Despite Ukip’s support being the oldest of any major party, he is bullish about his age, saying ‘You hear that we need to get young people involved in politics — well here I am’.

Youth in politics is nothing new. William Pitt the Younger became prime minister at just 24. However after the Great Reform Act of 1832 politicians started to get older. This peaked at the start of the 20th century. After New Labour’s victory in 1997, parliament’s average age dropped sharply. Most of Britain’s top politicians today are in their 40s; many 20th century prime ministers took office after turning 60.

Old heads on young shoulders

People are always complaining about young people’s disengagement from politics, some say. What better way to solve that problem than by having lots of them in parliament? A youthful voice in the stale political system could be exactly the refreshment that Britain needs: young people are here to shake things up.

Some of these people are barely out of school, reply sceptics. We must always remember the concerns of young people, but the reality is that you need a certain amount of life experience to make sensible judgements on behalf of the country. These young people’s ambition is admirable; but before entering parliament they should spend some time in a regular job.

You Decide

  1. Would you vote for a 20-year-old as your MP? Could you see yourself doing the job at that age?
  2. How old should somebody be before they are allowed to stand for election to parliament?

Activities

  1. List the three qualities you think it is most important for politicians to have. Are any of them affected by age?
  2. Class debate: ‘This house would give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote.’

Some People Say...

“Youth is wasted on the young.”

Oscar Wilde

What do you think?

Q & A

Why do young people vote less than old people?
Some blame ignorance about politics for young people’s tendency not to vote. However this not really true. A better reason is that young people feel they have no real stake in society. They are less likely to be directly interested in what goes on in their communities. For example, having children and owning property gives you a reason to be interested in how schools, hospitals and highways are run.
How do I run for parliament?
Almost anyone can stand. You have to be 18 or over, registered to vote, a citizen of Britain, Ireland or certain Commonwealth countries and able to pay a £500 deposit, only returned if you win at least 5% of the vote. Police officers, members of the armed forces and those in the House of Lords cannot stand.

Word Watch

Douglas Alexander
The shadow foreign secretary, Alexander won his seat with a huge majority of 16,614 in the 2010 election. Bookmakers give him roughly a one in three chance of retaining his seat.
SNP surge
The SNP looks set to rocket up from six seats to over 50 seats at the 2015 general election. The main reasons for this are the decreasing popularity of Labour in Scotland and the growing independence movement.
‘Baby of the House’
Previous ‘babies of the house’ include Tony Benn and Roy Jenkins, key Labour figures from the post-war period, and former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy.
William Pitt the Younger
Pitt the Younger was prime minister for 20 years over two spells from 1783 to 1806. He is best known for leading Britain in the Napoleonic Wars and is highly ranked by historians.
Great Reform Act
One of the most important pieces of legislation in British history. The act paved the way for a fair and genuinely representative democracy. It is responsible for much of how the electoral system in Britain works today.

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