Being a career politician now seems like the only route to the top

Ed Miliband joins David Cameron in being elected party leader after only one term in the Commons - while Nick Clegg became leader after only two years.

Our guest writer is Philip Cowley, Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham, and is author (along with Dennis Kavanagh) of The British General Election of 2010, to be published on 30 September by Palgrave

I have no idea whether Ed Miliband’s election represents electoral salvation or disaster for the Labour Party – although it’s worth noting that the fact that many Conservatives seem genuinely pleased by his victory is not a reliable indicator of anything. In 1975, almost all of the Labour hierarchy were delighted by Margaret Thatcher’s victory over Willie Whitelaw, thinking that she’d be far too extreme to connect with the electorate. They had almost two decades in opposition to reflect on how wrong they got that one.

But it does represent confirmation of a dramatic change in the career trajectories of British politicians. First elected in 2005, Ed Miliband becomes leader of the Labour Party after just one term in the House of Commons. When he faces the prime minister at PMQs, he will be taking on someone who was also elected after just one term in the Commons. And should he get into a tiff with Nick Clegg at any point – as I suspect he just might – he will be debating with someone who was elected to lead his party after a mere two years at Westminster.

When all three of the major parties elect leaders with (at most) just one parliament’s experience under their belt, something is clearly happening. Indeed, four of the five candidates for the Labour leadership had been elected in either 2001 or 2005. The only one with more than a decade’s experience of the Commons came last.

When Nick Clegg was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats he defeated Chris Huhne, who was as fresh-faced as Mr Clegg; Mr Huhne had first run as a leadership candidate as early as 2006, less than a year after becoming an MP.

Compare that to the generation they replaced. Brown was first elected in 1983, and didn’t become leader of his party until 2007. Mr Cameron replaced Michael Howard, first elected in 1983, becoming leader in 2003. And Mr Clegg replaced Ming Campbell, who became leader in 2006, having been elected in 1987.

So this is more than just a change of generation; it represents a real speeding up of political life, as well as a diminution of the role of the Commons as the testing arena for aspirant politicians. In part, of course, it’s because all of them had significant political experience at a reasonably senior level before they entered the Commons, as special advisers or, in Mr Clegg’s case, as an MEP.

In The British General Election of 2010, Byron Criddle notes that a full two-fifths of Labour’s new intake have experience as ministerial or MPs’ aides, with the career politician making advances in the other parties as well. That still leaves plenty of MPs with a broader experience of the world; the career politician remains as a minority in the Commons as a whole.

But for those who want a speedy route to the top, career politician now looks to be the only game in town. It is not obvious that that is something to be celebrated.

21 Responses to “Being a career politician now seems like the only route to the top”

  1. James Easy

    RT Being a career politician now seems like the only route to the top: //bit.ly/cOrt9Q – by Prof. @philipjcowley – Sad state of affairs

  2. Steve Baines

    No good will come of it RT @leftfootfwd: Being a career politician now seems the only route to the top: //bit.ly/cOrt9Q @philipjcowley

  3. Philip Cowley

    RT @leftfootfwd: Being a career politician now seems like the only route to the top: //bit.ly/cOrt9Q – by @philipjcowley

  4. Andrew Holt

    Think of the career paths of the great PMs of the 20th century. And lament this: //bit.ly/cOrt9Q (via @philipjcowley; @leftfootfwd).

  5. James Davis

    RT @leftfootfwd: Being a career politician now seems like the only route to the top: //bit.ly/cOrt9Q – by Prof. @philipjcowley

  6. Emma Coften

    RT @leftfootfwd: Being a career politician now seems like the only route to the top: //bit.ly/cOrt9Q – by Prof. @philipjcowley

  7. Philip Hunt

    So how do we change things so that more party leaders and front benchers have had a career outside politics?

  8. Matthew Barrett

    Great read, as everRT @philipjcowley: Being a career politician now seems like the only route to the top: //bit.ly/cOrt9Q

  9. Matthew Barrett

    Great read, as ever RT @philipjcowley: Being a career politician now seems like the only route to the top: //bit.ly/cOrt9Q

  10. Eddy Anderson

    Well this is weird: I blogged on pretty much the same issue earlier this afternoon! (//politicalreboot.blogspot.com/2010/09/im-change-labour-needs.html)

  11. Philip Cowley

    RT @mattrcb: Great read, as ever: Being a career politician now seems like the only route to the top: //bit.ly/cOrt9Q

  12. Dave Hind

    RT @philipjcowley: RT @mattrcb: Great read, as ever: Being a career politician now seems like the only route to the top: //bit.ly/cOrt9Q

  13. Mark Thompson

    Being a career politician now seems like the only route to the top | Left Foot Forward //bit.ly/9DnkHW [del.icio.us]

  14. Andrew Lomas

    How depressing… RT @leftfootfwd: Being a career politician now seems like the only route to the top //bit.ly/9DnkHW

  15. David Skelton

    Fascinating read RT@Leftfootfwd Being a career politician now seems like the only route to the top: //bit.ly/cOrt9Q – @philipjcowley

  16. Alan Hind

    RT @philipjcowley: RT @mattrcb: Great read, as ever: Being a career politician now seems like the only route to the top: //bit.ly/cOrt9Q

  17. Democratic Society

    Noted: Being a career politician now seems like the only route to the top //bit.ly/9DnkHW

  18. Aled-Dilwyn Fisher

    @iaindale To an extent, I agree – it's just not clear from your post. @philipjcowley @leftfootfwd makes the same point //bit.ly/cOrt9Q

  19. Giles Marshall

    @iaindale Not new, but Philip Cowley's angle about career politicians reaching the top is interesting – //bit.ly/9DnkHW

  20. Paul Evans

    Being a career politician now seems like the only route to the top //bit.ly/dqW90s

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