The election of Keir Mather as Selby and Ainsty’s first ever Labour MP has rekindled a long-running debate about youth involvement in politics. At just 25, Mather is the new Baby of the House, edging out Nadia Whittome as the youngest MP currently serving. While this has been celebrated by many, others have questioned whether a 25-year-old could have enough life experience to effectively serve their constituents. Meanwhile, Charlotte Owen has been appointed as the youngest ever life peer at the age of 30 to widespread criticism, with figures across the political spectrum questioning whether a brief and solely political career warrants such an honour. In both cases, commentators – usually, it has to be said, well into their middle-age – should reflect on whether the status quo adequately represents young people. Politicians should reflect the views of all sections of the population, including young people, who face unprecedented challenges compared to previous generations. And while the appointment of Owen can be criticised on other grounds, we should celebrate the election of young MPs like Mather who can bring their perspective to the parliamentary Labour party.
There are 8 million people aged 16-25 in the UK, roughly the combined population of Scotland and Wales, which are together represented by 99 MPs. Yet the historic result in Selby and Ainsty made Mather the only Labour MP younger than 26. While those aged 18-24 are twice as likely to vote Labour as those aged over 75, in all but two parliaments since 1951, Conservative MPs have been younger on average than their Labour counterparts. Young voters trust our party to prioritise the issues that affect them most, so we must show that we are the party to tackle these challenges. Our laws benefit from input from a diverse range of people; this should include diversity in age.
This is especially true because many of the issues currently being examined by policymakers have or will have the greatest impact on young people, like the out-of-control rental sector, the cost-of-living crisis, climate change and artificial intelligence. Some may suggest that young MPs are not best placed to solve them owing to a perceived lack of experience; but experience does not necessarily correlate with ‘years lived’. Does Rishi Sunak’s experience working at Goldman Sachs and two hedge funds make him better qualified to represent the people of Britain? To insist on a certain number of years of ‘life experience’ as a prerequisite for public office will simply ensure that young people are denied the representation afforded to older generations.
Keir Mather does not share the experiences of every young person in this country; it would be impossible for any individual to do so. He can still bring a perspective to policy discussions that no older MP could, representing the aspirational young voters that Labour needs to win support from. Going forward, more should be done to encourage young people from different backgrounds to enter politics, such as people who didn’t go to university, who qualified for free school meals, or who are otherwise underrepresented in parliament.
In its role scrutinising legislation, the House of Lords must also bring together a broader range of experiences than it currently does. Recent appointments such as that of Charlotte Owen, seemingly appointed due to her close relationship with Boris Johnson rather than for any attributes desirable in a lawmaker, have called into question whether it is fair for to receive a job for life representing the public at the age of just 30. Regardless of age, being an ally of a disgraced former prime minister should not qualify you to have a key role in future legislation. To put it bluntly, Charlotte Owen’s appointment should be criticised, not because she is young, but because she is underqualified for the job. The unelected nature of the House of Lords means that institutions must provide even greater scrutiny over who is appointed, as there is no opportunity for the electorate to hold peers accountable. Still, age should not be the driving force behind criticism of the now Baroness Owen.
In any case, the election of Keir Mather should be celebrated as a symbol of the Labour party’s commitment to tackling the enormous challenges facing young people over the coming decades. It should also act as a reminder that our party can best represent our country when a diverse range of people have an input. Young people who are not yet involved with politics should be encouraged, not shamed, for wanting to be elected. Our diversity is essential to Labour’s status as the “political wing of the British people”, as restated by Keir Starmer last year. We should not fall for Tory ‘divide and conquer’ tactics which seek to use the strength of our diversity against us.
Image credit: Photo by Camilla Bundgaard on Unsplash