Election '97: Parties scramble to claim the mantle of youth

Labour's roll-call of twentysomething candidates put paid to Lib- Dems theme of the day
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The Independent Online
Liberal Democrat claims to be the party of youth fell flat yesterday when it emerged that the title of "youngest MP" was about to fall to Labour.

The revelation sparked desperate attempts to regain the trophy by the Liberal Democrats, whose theme of the day was "Give Youth A Chance".

Although the Liberal Democrats have only one under-30 in a seat they can seriously expect to win, Labour has three. The Conservatives' youngest serious hopeful is 30.

While it is still not clear who will be the youngest MP, Labour will certainly carry off the trophy. Yvette Cooper, a former Independent journalist, is standing for the party at the age of 28 in the safe seat of Pontefract and Castleford, while Claire Ward, at 24, might well win Watford.

The Liberal Democrats' youngest serious contender is Stephen Gallagher, 29, who takes over from the retiring Sir Russell Johnston in Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber.

However, in an attempt to prove they were still the party of youth, Liberal Democrat spin doctors last night sent The Independent a list of all the seats where they had under-30s fighting in second place. These included Huntingdon, where the Prime Minister has a 22,000 majority.

The Conservatives do not have any policy on whether or not putting young MPs into Parliament is a good thing, a spokeswoman for the party said slightly sniffily. She suggested a handful of 33- and 34-year-olds along with one 40-year-old as the Tory representatives from the younger end of the market. Graham Brady, 30, will take over the safe seat of Altrincham and Sale from Sir Fergus Montgomery.

"It really depends what you mean by "winnable," the spokeswoman said, wondering whether to include the Stafford candidate David Cameron, born in 1966. "It's a 6,000 majority."

Labour's third young contender is Lorna Fitzsimmons, 29, who is fighting the highly marginal Rochdale for the party.

Yesterday Ms Ward said she was very hopeful of winning the seat, which would give Labour a majority of 51 if it fell to the party on a uniform swing. Being the youngest MP would not be too hard a cross to bear.

"It's daunting, but it's also very exciting and a challenge and I would relish that as an opportunity.

"I think it's very positive for the Labour Party and positive for politics that we should have more young people coming into Parliament," she said.

The Liberal Democrats' press conference yesterday was devoted to the party's policies on youth. Its leader Paddy Ashdown, at 56 the oldest of the three main parties, said he was "infuriated" by the waste of thousands of young lives through lack of opportunity.

"The Liberal Democrat vision is to give all Britain's young people the chance to make a difference to their own lives, to their communities and to Britain as a whole," he said.

The Liberal Democrats do still have some claims to be the party of youth, though. Matthew Taylor, MP for Truro, has been the youngest MP since he was elected at the age of 24 in 1987. Before that Charles Kennedy, who was elected for the SDP in Ross Cromarty and Skye at the age of 24 in 1983, held the title.

In 1979, the youngest MP was Stephen Dorrell, now Secretary of State for Health, who was elected at the age of 27. The youngest-ever woman MP is Bernadette Devlin who was 21 when she was elected as Independent Unity member for Mid-Ulster in 1969.

But no one will ever beat the record of Henry Long, who was just 15 when he was made member for Old Sarum in 1835. Under modern electoral law, no minor can sit in Parliament.

Four hopeful twentysomethings who stand a good chance of winning a Westminster seat

Claire Ward, 24,

Labour candidate for Watford

Already used to the limelight - as well as standing for Parliament, Ms Ward is Mayor of Elstree and Borehamwood in Hertfordshire. She works as a trainee solicitor. Born in North Shields, Tyne and Wear, she was educated at the Universities of Hertfordshire and Brunel and the College of Law in London.

Yvette Cooper, 28, Labour candidate for Pontefract and Castleford.

Latterly an economics writer on The Independent, Yvette Cooper has worked for both John Smith, the former Labour leader, and Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor. Born in Inverness and brought up in Hampshire, she took a first in PPE from Balliol, Oxford, and spent a year at Harvard as well as working on Bill Clinton's election campaign in 1992.

Stephen Gallagher, 29, Liberal Democrat candidate for Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber.

At 29, Stephen Gallagher is already an election veteran. He contested the Monklands East seat for his party after the death of the former Labour leader, John Smith, in 1994. He was union president at Glasgow University and has been rural affairs spokesman for the Scottish Liberal Democrats since 1995.

Graham Brady, 30, Tory candidate for Altrincham and Sale West.

Graham Brady, who was deputy head boy at Altrincham Grammar School, promises to defend state grammar schools as well as the non-selective schools locally. He has a law degree from Durham, and is public affairs director of a consultancy and conference business.

Bernadette Devlin, Independent Unity MP for Mid-Ulster from 1969- 1974.

Elected at 21, Bernadette Devlin (now McAliskey) remains the youngest- ever woman MP. The most famous incident in her parliamentary career was her assault in the Chamber on the Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, in the wake of the Bloody Sunday shootings.

Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health

Became an MP in 1979 at the age of 27, when he was elected Conservative MP for Loughborough. Educated at Uppingham School and Brasenose College, Oxford, he was personal assistant to Peter Walker, MP, at the age of 22 and PPS to him at the energy department at the age of 31.

Charles Kennedy, Liberal Democrat MP for Ross, Cromarty and Skye.

Was youngest MP 1983-87 after being elected to his seat for the SDP aged 24. Son of a crofter, he was president of the Glasgow University Union 1980-81 before becoming a journalist with BBC Highland in 1982. Has been president of the Liberal Democrats and spoke for them on health, and Europe.

Matthew Taylor, Liberal Democrat MP for Truro.

Elected as a Liberal MP in 1987, at 24, he has been the youngest member for the past 10 years and is his party's spokesman on local government. He went to school in Truro and London and won a scholarship to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where he was president of the university student union.

Lorna Fitzsimmons, 29, Labour candidate for Rochdale.

A former president of the National Union of Students, Ms Fitzsimmons now works as a lobbyist. She has already been the Institute of Public Relations' "Young Communicator of the Year" and was nominated for Cosmopolitan's "Woman of the Year" in 1993. She finds time for an leisure pursuits including hill walking and "playing the horn".