A slew of youthful politicians have been defeated by the reality of the job
“What, young snotty here?” That’s the bemused response of Hugh Laurie’s Prince Regent in Blackadder the Third when informed that the callow youth in front of him is the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger. Pitt was 24 when he ascended to the role in 1783, remaining in office for 17 years. That’s one year younger than Keir Mather, who on Thursday night was elected Labour MP for Selby and Ainsty in a keenly anticipated by-election, overturning a Conservative majority of more than 20,000.
It would be remiss, naturally, to refer to the clearly diligent and sincere Mather as “snotty”, though that didn’t stop Johnny Mercer, Veterans’ Minister and the Tory Party’s answer to Alan Partridge, from wading in. “We don’t want Parliament to become like The Inbetweeners,” the Plymouth MP insisted on Sky, to the horror of fellow panellist and Labour peer, Baroness Chapman. Mather’s suitability has since been defended by his mother, which hasn’t entirely settled the matter.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
The new Member for Selby wasn’t born when New Labour swept to power in 1997; the just-released Titanic was boosting tissue sales and Destiny’s Child was in the charts. He has been accused of being an “identikit Starmer”, another clone on the conveyer belt of increasingly youthful Labour parliamentary candidates. This may well be unfair: Mather has vowed to “be a representative for the power that young people have to make a difference”, stressing that “I’m a taxpayer too: I feel the pressures like anyone else.” As a 20-something in the Labour Party who inclines more towards Starmer’s politics than Jeremy Corbyn’s, he may even be a breath of fresh air.
Yet Mather assumes his unofficial role as Baby of the House in the wake of a series of very young MPs finding the pressures of Parliament difficult to bear. Earlier this month, 28-year-old SNP politician Mhairi Black announced that she will be standing down at the next general election. Black, elected in 2015 when she was only 20, sent out a parting shot at the “toxic” environment in Westminster, labelling it “poisonous” and “one of the most unhealthy workplaces” imaginable. She claimed that her experience as an MP has had a negative effect on her “body and mind”.
In November last year, 29-year-old Tory MP Dehenna Davison stated her intention not to stand in an upcoming election, citing the need to spend time outside of politics. “It has meant I haven’t had anything like a normal life for a 20-something,” she admitted of her time in Parliament since being part of the 2019 intake of new Conservative MPs. In 2021, Mather’s predecessor as Baby of the House, Labour’s Nadia Whittome, took a leave of absence from politics for several months because she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The demands of life as an MP are exacting for anyone: for those who are only a few years into working life, they can only be harder. Compared to the minimum age requirement of 35 to become US president, the minimum age of 18 to become a British MP starts to look overly generous.
Mather has evidently been immersed in politics longer than most people his age. A former youth parliament member who set up a Labour group for young people in his hometown of Hull, before reading history and politics at Oxford and working as a parliamentary researcher for Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting, his commitment to the Party cannot be questioned. But Westminster’s appetite for youth representation, usually to attract a new demographic of voters, ties into a broader cultural tendency to give younger voices particular weight. Think publishing house executives caving to the identitarian demands of a right-on junior editor, or the continuing reverence for Greta Thunberg.
But wait! William Gladstone entered the Commons when he was 22; Winston Churchill was 25; the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, a three-time PM, was 23. (Oswald Mosley was 21 when he became a Conservative MP, but that’s another story.) Keir Mather doesn’t need to match the achievements of any of these figures to be an effective representative for Selby. Just as we shouldn’t fetishise youth, it would be wrong to discard it completely as a remedy for the sterility of British politics.
The life of an MP is very different now, though, compared to when Churchill was starting out at the beginning of the 20th century. Scrutiny is relentless and party HQs, whether Tory or Labour, can’t make special allowances. Candidates for the next general election, likely to be held next year, are still being selected. Perhaps the Zoomers considering their options should think about another career first.