Jeremy Corbyn and the Politics of Age

The march of the thirty and forty-somethings has come to an end.

Little did we realise that when John Major entered Number 10 in 1990, the top jobs in British politics would slowly go to the (comparatively) young. Labour took a few years to cotton on, but when John Smith died, 41-year-old Tony Blair succeeded him, flanked by a shadow chancellor, Gordon Brown, who was only a couple of years his senior.

Blair went on to become the youngest prime minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812, while Major was replaced as party leader by William Hague, a 36-year-old who was still best known for a barnstorming Conservative conference speech made in his teens. Even Iain Duncan Smith was only 47.

And Charles Kennedy and Nick Clegg first led the Liberal Democrats when they were 39 and 40 respectively, while, going back a generation, Lord Paddy Ashdown was 47 when the party was formed in 1988. 

Since then there have been David Cameron, who resigned as prime minister while, remarkably, still in his forties, who formed an at times formidable double act with his even younger chancellor, George Osborne. Their opponent through the Coalition years, Ed Miliband, is still only 46 and looks even younger.

Ok, Brown was in his fifties once he finally got the keys to Number 10, but as mentioned before, his rise was down to a testy partnership formed in his 40s. The other exceptions also come with asterisks: Lord Michael Howard was essentially charged with an interim job of steadying the ship and Lord Menzies Campbell was barely given 18 months with the Lib Dems, at least partly a result of concerns over his age, 64.

It is quite remarkable, then, to see Jeremy Corbyn win not one but two leadership elections in the space of a year and that, at 67, little is made of his age. Theresa May will be 60 next week and is the oldest premier to have started the job since Jim Callaghan 40 years ago.

Of the three national parties, only the Lib Dems have held firm with the ‘youth wins’ view, choosing a then 45-year-old Tim Farron over Norman Lamb, who was well into his fifties. But the Lib Dems, with only eight MPs, are not the force they were.

This is a trend we’re seeing in the US as well. Hilary Clinton versus Donald Trump is a sexagenarian versus a septuagenarian.

Clinton’s main opponent for the Democratic nomination was Bernie Sanders, who ran her so close at the age of 74, while Trump’s closest rival, Ted Cruz, should have benefitted from some added forty-something vigour, but was trounced. Barack Obama certainly appealed to younger voters in 2008 when he was a notably youthful and energetic 47/48.

Admittedly, the US has always been slightly more sceptical of youth in its politicians: one of the main complaints in the early Bill Clinton presidential years that he was too inexperienced, despite having been a governor for a decade. But it certainly appeared that there was a drift towards youthful, photogenic candidates, so that they were at least mixing it up with the older hands.

What has changed on both sides of the Atlantic? It’s not as if the candidates are uniform: May and Corbyn are as unalike in style and views as Trump and Clinton.

The older politicians, I think, can be put into two camps: professional and insurgent.

The professional politicians, those who play traditional political games and campaign in methodical ways, are May and Clinton. They are experienced, well known to the public and have track records in the notoriously difficult Home Office and State Departments.

Their colleagues might not like them, but they begrudgingly admit they are forceful, pragmatic, and tough out the bad times. After years of economic doldrums and, in the UK’s case, Brexit, many people are fed up of the spin, flash and even charisma of the 40-somethings and want mettle. May and Clinton are impressive politicians, but they are not as slick as many recent leaders and, as a result, are thought to have greater substance.

Whether their policies are in fact crazy or not, there is trust among the public and colleagues that they will be methodical and plot a slow but steady course to prosperity. A long record, and therefore a greater age, counts.

Corbyn and Sanders won’t like being put together with Trump, and neither will he, but these guys also benefit from their long records. The difference is that while Clinton and May supporters admire their pragmatism, the insurgents’ fans love this trio’s decades of inflexibility.

They are purists and in a world coming to terms with globalisation and increasing military threats, they want someone who has been unwavering in their ideological commitment (Sanders and Corbyn) or saying what they think (Trump, who has a history of being ideologically slippery at best).

Again, such long records mean they are likely to be older.

Focusing on the UK, May and Corbyn have a few other things going for them, which are direct results of their years.

May has not always been popular; even many supporters seeth at the reminder that she told Conservative conference 14 years ago to stop being the ‘Nasty Party’. Many floating voters have also found her too right wing, particularly over issues like immigration.  

But with age comes rehabilitation. May has not reached national treasure status, but years in the public eye mean she is at least respected by voters who don't like many of her policies.

Survation recently found that May has a staggering +33.6 net favourability rating among voters, which can only mean that many centrists admire her despite holding different views.

Corbyn is different. Sure, he was known to far left and moderate socialist groupings, but these are hardly huge numbers.

Even the populist causes in which he reveled were associated with other political figures. Take the mass movement to oppose the Iraq War, which was synonymous with Kennedy and Tony Benn.

Corbyn had the record but he was also fresh to the public with his own style of rhetoric, clothing and, at times, a cantankerous attitude (much like Sanders) that added to his authenticity and pleased those who share his frustration at the world.

He quickly became a father or grandfather figure to his younger supporters and they now defend him with familial loyalty. Corbyn might not be a national treasure yet, but he is the darling of the left.

Plus, I wouldn’t bet against him becoming a national treasure soon after the point he is no longer Labour leader, whether that is after a coup next year or leaving Downing Street in 2030. The jam, the allotment, the beard, the ill-fitting suits, and El Gato the errr cat assure him of that victory, at least.

What’s interesting about this is that today’s thirty and forty-somethings can now rest assured they will get another shot.

Chuka Umunna a busted flush after pulling out of the Labour leadership suddenly last year? Not a chance, he’s 37 and getting better known.

Even George Osborne can plot a course back to the top. He’s only 45 and, I would suggest, is odds-on for rehabilitation in the eyes of his colleagues and public over the next decade.

That’s a long time to wait, but to succeed in politics these days you need to take the long march of the fifty and sixty-somethings.

 

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