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.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.