There are two political tribes on display at this year's Labour conference and they have nothing to do with the pro-Ed trade unions or the pro-David Blairite factions. They are youth versus experience; the future versus the past; beauty before age. Outwardly this is all reflected by the the black-haired versus the grey beards. Anyone with white hair – or no hair – now has no future in even attempting to lead a political party. This will turn out to be the worst indictment of 21st-century politics. Our representative democracy may have matured, to some extent, in terms of ethnicity, sex and gender balance, but it has taken a step back in terms of age discrimination.
Not being a Labour Party Kremlinologist – at least when it comes to fathoming the policy differences between the two Miliband brothers – I have concluded that the main reason Ed won was thanks to his lustrous, gelled, black hair. David lost because of that tuft of white hair above his forehead. The cult of youth triumphed because David, with that white sprig and a four-year age disadvantage over his younger brother, appeared to have one foot already in the political grave.
The conference is addressed from the rostrum simultaneously, on the one hand by the outgoing generation – led yesterday by the white-haired former Chancellor Alistair Darling – and on the other by the new blackheads. Valedictory speeches will no doubt also be heard later in the week from the likes of Jack Straw and others who are laying down their frontbench burdens. Alan Johnson, white-haired but not yet bald, is, however, thankfully hanging in there for the Shadow Cabinet elections.
Mr Johnson has been an MP for only 13 years. By any standards of the past, and with stints as a Cabinet minister in three major departments, in the 20th-century he would just about be regarded as qualified to stand as a leadership contender. Similarly, by the standards of Denis Healey, Jim Callaghan and Harold Wilson, Mr Darling should have been another obvious contender. Yet here he is, in the prime of political life, shuffling off the frontbench stage.
The election of Ed Miliband means that the wretched disease and cult of callow political youth has now infected all three main political parties. The Prime Minister – celebrating his 44th birthday in a fortnight's time – is actually now the grandfather of political leaders among the three main parties. Nick Clegg, 44 next January, sits appropriately in the middle between the two big party leaders in the age stakes. But poor old David Miliband, older than than all of them, is now over the hill having celebrated his 45th birthday. It is a far cry from two of the former Foreign Secretary's predecessors. Jim Callaghan and Douglas Hurd both ran for the leadership of their respective parties. Callaghan (63) won and, while Hurd (60) lost, age was never a factor.
There is something odd and wrong about our modern politics when, after the 2005 general election, two new boys from that intake – Clegg and Miliband (Ed) – are now already their parties' leaders. Cameron himself was also leader after only four years as an MP. It was Harriet Harman, Ed Miliband's deputy, who reminded us over the weekend that her new boss once worked for her – spending his first day looking for her lost overcoat. There is something wrong when he ends up giving her the orders.
If we were truly making progress in modernising our 21st-century politics it would have been Ms Harman, 60 (going on 40), among the strongest contenders in this leadership election. The fact that she seemed to fall for the accepted wisdom that she is from another political generation is extremely depressing. David Cameron may have been speaking tongue-in-cheek when he described her as the best of the three Labour leaders he has faced across the dispatch box but he was unintentionally speaking a truth shared by many Labour supporters.
Not that I come to this argument for greybeards with clean hands. Although my bus pass and winter fuel allowance are only nine months away (until George Osborne suddenly discovers that while 60 is too old for politics it is too young for retirement benefits) I actually entered Parliament over 30 years ago as the youngest MP of the 1979 intake.
The then Speaker, George Thomas – elected in 1945 – greeted my arrival with the comment that I was not old enough to be there. The outgoing prime minister, Jim Callaghan, had also been an MP for 34 years. The newly elected Prime Minister, 53-year-old Margaret Thatcher, was regarded as inexperienced, even though she had been an MP for 20 years. Thomas told me to enjoy every moment but reminded me that I had arrived by an electoral accident and that, if I was good, I might become a junior minister after 10 years. I finally reached the dizzy heights of a junior government whip after four general elections.
The trouble with the current cult of youth at the top table of our modern political system is that it breeds dysfunction and staleness much earlier in the political cycle. When most of the citizenry is now older than those who lead them, public unwillingness to be lectured by their young leaders is bound to breed indifference and cynicism.
Politics is the one profession which needs cascades of experience coursing through the political generations. Who can doubt the sheer coolness under fire of the likes of Ken Clarke (70) or Sir George Young (69). And who can doubt that Neil Kinnock (68) would be eminently more electable today than 20 years ago. So many political careers would have undoubtedly been far more successful if the ascent to the summit had been delayed. Overweening ambition is invariably more likely to kill a political career than if it was left patiently to mature through experience. William Hague would undoubtedly be Prime Minister today if he had not stood at Tory leader in 1997 but had waited until the 2005 contest. Even now he is not yet 50.
Some careers need freshness. Sport inevitably means being regarded as over the hill by 30. Politics, however, should be like fine wine where maturity makes for a better leader. At least Cleethorpes – always ahead of contemporary trends – chose and got over the cult of youth by my election three decades ago. This time, thankfully, their new Tory MP, at 60, is the oldest "new boy". May he go on to be the next Tory leader.Reuse content