David Blunkett and Ed Miliband could learn a lot from Dolly Parton

In politics the inexperienced rise to the top, and it shows


This Saturday Dolly Parton performs live at the Glastonbury Festival. Last weekend David Blunkett announced he was standing down as an MP. Both are 68 and in robust health. One rocks on seeking new career highs. The other concludes that the career highs are all in the past.

Dolly and David are part of a pattern. Celebrities are getting older. Big political figures are getting younger. Last weekend, on the day David explained why he was retiring as an MP, ITV broadcast a concert from earlier this year in which Paul McCartney mesmerised an American audience.

McCartney is 72 and will be touring in the US later this summer. Clint Eastwood is currently publicising the first film musical he has directed. He’s 84. At almost 80, Woody Allen is contemplating returning to stand-up comedy. In the UK there are many equivalent figure. Bruce Forsyth is performing energetic one-man shows this summer. Some of the best broadcasters - Melvyn Bragg and John Humphrys spring to mind – are in their seventies.

In most fields people have to work longer or are choosing to do so. But in politics the reverse applies. The young and inexperienced rise to the top very quickly. The experienced ones depart the scene. Both Tony Blair and David Cameron became youthful Prime Ministers with no previous experience of power.

Gordon Brown and George Osborne were young Chancellors, similarly inexperienced. When Nick Clegg became Deputy Prime Minister in daunting circumstances he had been an MP for a single parliament. In all cases the inexperience showed.

Recent leadership contests have also tended to be youthful affairs. A young William Hague won the Tory leadership in 1997 when he was not ready for the its impossible challenges. When Labour held its leadership contest in 2010, veterans such as Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, David Blunkett and Jack Straw – all of them still in good health and good political form – were absent.

That was in marked contrast to Labour’s leadership contest in 1976 when the candidates were all in their fifties and sixties, fully formed politically after years of cabinet experience and a thousand internal party battles played out on the bright lights of the political stage.

The heavyweight charismatic candidates then – Jim Callaghan, Michael Foot, Tony Crosland, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn and Denis Healey – all had their flaws but no one could have accused them of lacking political experience.

Someone should tell Lady Gaga that porno-chic is out
Don't blame foreign players for England's demise at the World Cup
When will Britain admit to its alcohol problem?

Part of the explanation for the early departures in the current era is the freakishly long periods of one-party rule since 1979. By 1997 senior Tories were exhausted after 18 years in power or had lost their seats. The same applied to Labour in 2010 after 13 years of unbroken rule.

But there are other factors too. There is no longer a sense of orthodox politics as a vocation for life. That sense is replaced by an assumption that politics is a young person’s profession. After the Conservative government was removed in 1974, all its key figures stayed on to fight the battles of opposition. When Labour lost in 1979, the big, charismatic personalities also remained for the years of impotent hell that followed. In contrast, look around now and a lot of seemingly formidable figures from the last two decades are in the private sector or on television.

The generational issue is complex. Of course there is a need for parties to move on. If ministerial veterans had stood for the leadership in 2010 there would have been a mountain of hostile columns and tweets screaming that Labour needed to break with its past. Parties need youthful figures close to the top to bring fresh approaches and to symbolise new beginnings.

But politics is also an art form where the classiest artists learn from direct, personal experience. Those who have been exposed to raging heat on the political stage are better placed to act when then the temperature next reaches boiling point. When plunged into crisis in government Blair, Brown, Cameron, Clegg and co could not ask a valuable question: What did we do last time? There was no last time. 

Ed Miliband is fortunate in that his shadow cabinet still includes figures who have been exposed to the heat, who have experience of government and opposition. He needs to make the most of them in the final grinding months before the election, and make use of them in power if he were to win. There need to be a few at least who are able to answer the question: What did we do in the last crisis?

As Paul McCartney explained when asked how he could still perform live for three hours: “That’s what I’ve always done. In Hamburg the Beatles performed for eight hours sometimes”. His past is a guide to the present.

While Dolly rocks and Melvyn presents a thousand TV and radio programmes most politicians peak in their thirties and forties. We need a few more Dollys in politics.

Cameron is not fair game for volley of criticism

The current political battle is similar to a close match at Wimbledon. The critical focus is on one player and then the opponent makes an error and unrelenting attention moves to the other side of the court. If David Cameron fails in his bid to prevent Jean-Claude Juncker from becoming the next EU president, parts of the Conservative party will have a mini-nervous collapse.

For a time the attention would move from Miliband’s problems to Cameron’s. Unfairly, the Prime Minister has been criticised for noisily seeking to veto Junker, as if there were a quieter route towards such an outcome. Once Cameron had decided to seek a veto he had no choice but to speak out publicly. Having made a public declaration there was bound to be a lot of noise.

Cameron is not to blame for the way he has sought to block Juncker or for the likely failure of his attempt. But it is an early indication of the degree to which he is trapped by Europe. Imagine what it would be like if he were to win the election by a tiny majority. He would head to Berlin and other European capitals for an even more demanding negotiation. The outcome would almost certainly not satisfy a significant section of his party. At which point there would be more than a mini-nervous collapse.

All three main parties are extremely fragile at the moment but because of Europe the Conservatives remain in the most precarious position of all.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrigeration, mechan...

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line IT Support / Senior Engineer / Support Analyst

£24000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Executive - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Recognised as one of the fastes...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager - Refrigeration

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrigeration, mechan...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: the endless and beginningless election campaign goes up and down

John Rentoul
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

What the advertising world can learn from Zoella's gang

Danny Rogers
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor