Did David Miliband lose because he was too old and experienced?

A killer line from Ronald Reagan, then aged 73, in one of the 1984 TV debates with Walter Mondale (56) came when he said that he was not going to exploit for political purposes his opponent's youth and inexperience (HERE).

The joke served him well, but wouldn't work at all in the UK today - where increasing youthfulness and inexperience has been steadily becoming the norm among our leaders since Harold Wilson became Prime Minister at the tender age of 48 - as can be seen from the following two tables.

Table 1: Age and experience of current UK main party leaders

Age on

becoming leader

Years as an MP before

becoming leader










Table 2: Age and experience of Prime Ministers since Wilson

Age on

becoming leader

Years as an MP on

beoming leader






















'The torch has passed'?
Having heard Ed Miliband repeatedly reminding us that the Labour Party has passed to 'a new generation', I've been half-expecting him to go the whole hog and recycle the rest of a famous line from John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech about the torch having been passed to a younger generation.

But I don't think he will, because Kennedy wasn't just talking about youthfulness, but about what his generation had experienced:

"the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans - born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace ... "

For our current party leaders, the risk of evoking Kennedy is that the experience of active service in a world war contrasts rather too obviously with the that of 'being tempered by spending pretty much the whole of your adult life working for and as professional politicians'.

Or has the candle gone out?
When Anthony Eden (aged 58) took over from Winston Churchill (aged 81) as leader of the Conservative Party in 1955, my late mother-in-law considered him "far too young and inexperienced for the job of Prime Minister."

A bit extreme by today's standards, perhaps, but I can't help wondering if we've reached a point where the risk of being led into the next general election by someone as ancient as 50 may have played a part in Labour's rejection of David Miliband in favour of his younger brother.


Unknown said...

Interesting post, as always, Max.

The dénouement to your musings will have to wait, but it will be interesting to compare.

I crunched some numbers for fun to see how long each of the people you listed remained as leaders of their parties. Rounding to the nearest half year, I got the following:

Callaghan: 4.5
Brown: 3
Wilson: 13
Thather: 16
Heath: 9.5
Major: 6.5
Blair: 13

These "old hands" average 9.4 years as leaders of their parties.

As for the new kids on the block, we have Cameron (5 years), Clegg (3 years) and Miliband (0 years) averaging 2.7 years as leaders of their parties.

It will be interesting to see whether they have the staying power of the others.


John Zimmer

Joe Otten said...

I have a theory that much is due to the relationship between politicians and media.

Reporters and commentators can be old. And they can hurl abuse freely. The reverse is not true, and this establishes a status relationship, a pecking order in which journalists are superior to politicians.

Ming Campbell threatened this arrangement, simply by existing, and he was destroyed for it.

Michael said...

Is comparing current internal leadership contests with past general election contests the best way to demonstrate the recent trend towards youth in candidates? Might that not cause a problem by trying to measure what a party perceives as young against what the public perceives as young?

And is being an MP a good measure of political experience? Nick Clegg may seem a relative baby with 2 years experience as an MP before becoming the leader, but he spent 6 years before that as a Euro MP and then 4 years working for the European Commission. Whereas Tony Blair’s sole experience of professional politics before becoming leader appears to be his 11 years of being an MP. Is Nick Clegg that politically youthful and inexperienced compared to Blair simply because he didn’t go straight into electoral politics? Is it accurate to ignore David Cameron’s previous experience in the Conservative Government in the late 80s early 90s advising senior government figures because he wasn’t an MP?