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Why youth may be important in Labour leadership election

Michael Crick | 11:32 UK time, Thursday, 16 September 2010

I am anticipating the Labour leadership election result with mixed feelings. For the result may undermine my first rule of leadership elections - that the winner is usually the youngest candidate.

Between them, the three main British parties have held 19 ordinary leadership elections since the war. By that I mean proper elections, either amongst MPs or a wider electorate. And I don't include contests which involve a sitting leader simply being challenged, such as John Major v John Redwood in 1995.

Nor do I include the two contests where someone was elected unopposed - Michael Howard (2003) and Gordon Brown (2007).

Four of the six Conservative elections saw the youngest contender win - John Major (1990), William Hague (1997), Iain Duncan Smith (2001), and David Cameron (2005).

The exceptions were Edward Heath (1965) and Margaret Thatcher (1975), though Thatcher was younger than her main opponent Willie Whitelaw.

Labour scores four out of seven - Hugh Gaitskell (1955), Harold Wilson (1963), Neil Kinnock (1983) and Tony Blair (1994). The exceptions were James Callaghan (1976) (though he was younger than his main rival Michael Foot), Michael Foot (1980), and John Smith (1992).

The Liberals and Liberal Democrats have also elected the youngest candidate in four of their six elections - Jeremy Thorpe (1967), David Steel (1976), Charles Kennedy (1999), and Nick Clegg (2007). The exceptions were Paddy Ashdown (1988) and Ming Campbell (2006).

That's 63 per cent.

63 candidates fought the 19 contests, so if the results were random in terms of age, one would have expected the youngest to win 28 per cent.

So being the youngest contender makes it more than twice as likely that you will win.

And some of the youthful winners - Hague, IDS and Kennedy - triumphed over four older rivals.

If you include Roy Jenkins' defeat of David Owen for the leadership of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1982, the probability falls to 60 per cent.

In the last 20 years, since John Major's election in 1990, the trend has been even more pronounced - seven elections out of nine, including all four Conservative leadership contests.

That's a rate of 77.8 per cent. The two exceptions - the Scottish lawyer close friends John Smith and Ming Campbell - each lasted less than two years in office.

These results would seem to suggest that British parties are increasingly putting a premium on youth and freshness when picking their leaders.

So where does this leave us with the current Labour contest?

Andy Burnham is the youngest contender, being just a fortnight younger than Ed Miliband. Burnham isn't going to win, of course, but Ed Miliband may well do so, and he is four and a half years younger than his brother, David.

So the youth and freshness factor might still prove important in the Labour election, and may be decisive, although the strict result itself on Saturday 25 September 2010 will almost certainly undermine my rule.

NB: My previous version of this blog mistakenly omitted Michael Foot, who was not a young winner. These figures above are now the revised ones. The trends are still clear, especially since 1990.


  • Comment number 1.

    As an armchair political Hedge fund manager via betting shops (for my own amusement), thanks to the wild swings over the last 2 months in the odds for both of them i will make a profit whoever wins (even if any burnham wins), but I have hedged my money towards Ed recently to make the most money if he wins, which I think he will.

    It is quite obvious really (to me anyway) in such times the one who is credible, the least tainted and with the freshest looking face gets the undecided vote. DM has been looking a bit 'old establishment' and jaded with his past heavyweight reputation somewhat of amillstone outside of the westminster bubble.

    Actually I tell a lie I have not covered the prospect of Dianne Abbot winning, I have to admit my heart missed beat when she made the impassioned speech (to a v warm reception)about 'ending up with smart youngsters in suits' if labour does not re-connect with its roots with the millibands looking on with uncomfotable professional political smiles which said ' bless you are so naive''

    DA should win on the above basis from a 'true labour' perspective. But she will not of course, if she does I wont even mind losing all my carefully crafted gambling errmm I mean 'investment strategy'.

    Actually, having said the above I should really have £5 on her at 100 to 1 ...just in case.

    Its good fun this i can see why the suits in the city of london like making a living from this sort of thing using our money and at no risk to themselves........

  • Comment number 2.

    There must surely be a substantial selection effect though: a younger candidate who doesn't think they stand a good chance of winning might well decide to keep their powder dry for next time, whereas an older candidate might feel it is their last chance to win the leadership, and so decide to run regardless.

    It might not explain the whole effect (which is pretty large, as you say) but certainly a portion of it.

  • Comment number 3.

    it is sad when the fortunes of men are decided by ego, competition and can split families especially when two siblings are after the same will be a parting of the ways for them as brothers, they will deny it of course but it will never be the same again and to the despair of their mother...all politics end in failure so was it worth it? Only they know the answer to that one....that's another thing we will never know

  • Comment number 4.

    Just wondering when one might reach the actual barrel base of things to equate to the Labour leadership election just to keep talking about it in some way.

    Might one suggest hair colour? A marked absence of bottle blondes. It might mean something.


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