Make way for a rough new gang

A new breed of politician is about to take over from the old guard. They are more ruthless, less concerned with fairness: they like to win
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The Independent Online
Whatever happens next Thursday, we are about to witness the start of an historic transformation in the House of Commons. For the best part of two centuries, the nurseries for our political leadership have been the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge. There are exceptions - Lord Callaghan comes to mind, as does our current Prime Minister - but the curricula vitae of most of the leading figures in British politics for several generations have included some time in the debating societies of the ancient universities. The Scottish ascendancy in the Labour Party should not be stressed too much; in their own ways, St Andrews and Edinburgh have fulfilled the same role.

In any event, the influence of this network on British politics has been undeniable. Its latest incarnation has been the circle of former Cambridge Union office-holders, which includes Kenneth Clarke, Michael Howard, John Gummer and Norman Lamont. Their contemporaries are to be found scattered through the worlds of journalism and business. Every so often, one can sense in their debates a familiarity that stretches back to those days in the Union. Their manner is, by and large, genteel; they prize the clever, the literate and the witty. Even when they do go in for rabble-rousing, one feels that they are vaguely embarrassed by it; overblown rhetoric is never embraced with the relish shown by a Skinner or a Scargill, men bred on the need to inspire and inflame masses of people who'd rather be somewhere else. The Oxbridge set can, of course, be brutal. But they prize the elegant verbal stiletto, the damned-with-faint-praise remark, rather than the full-frontal attack. Their models have been Disraeli, Churchill (despite not being one of the club), Gaitskell, Butler, Macmillan. Above all, they regard the House of Commons and its rituals with an awe bordering on the religious. After all, this is what the Union prepared them for all those years ago.

This time, upwards of two dozen candidates likely to end up in the House are graduates of a different, rougher political school. During the late Sixties, with the massive expansion of higher education, a new breed of student politician emerged. For the most part, student union elections became vicious contests among the pretty far left (then called the Broad Left, and including Labour, Communist and even some Liberal students), the even further left (known as the ultra-left) and the intergalactically spaced-out left - who rejoiced in appellations such as the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist). Remarkably, despite the savagery of the politics, throughout the period the National Union of Students exploded from fewer than 250,000 members to more than 1 million at the start of the Eighties.

Since the presidency of Jack Straw in 1969, the National Union of Students has become a forcing-ground for political talent. Straw himself is the best known of the alumni; they also include Charles Clarke, Neil Kinnock's chief of staff. But this is not a Labour fiefdom. Alan Leaman, Paddy Ashdown's former strategy boss, and, surprisingly perhaps, Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth, also cut their teeth in the roughhouse of the NUS. Forsyth perhaps does not trumpet his past involvement for good political reasons. He spent most of his year as chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students trying to persuade Scottish students to leave the NUS, using roughly the same arguments currently deployed by the SNP.

The influence of this circle stretches wider. If Mr Blair wins, one of the most influential voices in his circle will be that of Peter Mandelson, who, though never a full-time NUS activist, fought and won his first election to become president of his college union. The circle also encompasses the world outside party politics. Mandelson's close colleague at the British Youth Council, Tom Shebbeare, is now chief executive to the Prince's Trust, and said to be the most important influence on the Prince of Wales. He is also the best influence, in the sense of keeping HRH's feet somewhere near terra firma. Sue Slipman, former NUS president, who made her name campaigning for the rights of one-parent families, will now present a formidable challenge to a new secretary of state for trade and industry, running the Gas Consumers Council. Several others run large organisations of this type, or aspire to do so.

And therein lies the clue to the difference. The Oxbridge generation had to leave college and build businesses before they got their hands on budgets of any size, or had to manage anybody other than their servants. They had to enter politics before they could experience the sordid business of private deals between sworn enemies, or shows of unity with people they hated and despised. The NUS generation had learnt all this by their 21st birthdays. I, for one, as president of the NUS, had managed a staff of 65, and a budget the equivalent of pounds 5m, by my mid-twenties.

The result is that these people are quite different from their predecessors. They are more ruthless and less concerned with good manners and fairness. They like to win. Michael Forsyth has single-mindedly refashioned the historically aristocratic and middle-class Scottish Conservatives in his image - tough, populist, rightish. He may have saved it from extinction. New Labour owes much to Charles Clarke's pursuit and destruction of the Militant Tendency. To win, they know that they have to be brilliantly organised. Yesterday the clipboard was their weapon; today it is the laptop and the mobile phone. They terrify the old guard in their parties.

Oddly enough, they are also comfortable with unlikely alliances. People who started political life in groups that could include Liberals and Communists would scarcely draw a breath at some of the reverses undertaken by Labour. They may also be completely unalarmed by the idea that a new electoral system might be embraced. The cultural change about to hit the House of Commons may precede something that will amaze us all.

One thing that I hope will change under the next government is the complexion of the political elite - and I mean that literally. This is not just about having more black MPs. I was astonished, on joining the Prime Minister's entourage yesterday, to discover that among more than 100 journalists and photographers mine was the only black face. It felt like being in a time warp, circa 1950.