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The Rise of the Novice Politician


Image via New Statesman

In late 2010, Ed Miliband emerged victorious from the contest for the leadership of the British Labour party. First elected to parliament in 2005, he became leader of his party after just one term in the House of Commons. When he faces David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, he takes on someone who was himself elected to lead his party after just one term in the House of Commons. And sitting next to David Cameron is the Deputy Prime Minister, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who was elected to lead his party after a mere two years at Westminster.

When all three of the major parties in Britain choose leaders with (at most) just one parliamentary term’s experience under their belt, it would seem to be a sign of a major development in British politics. This short article, just published in Politics, considers how unusual this is.  Answer: it is extremely unusual.  David Cameron was not just the least experienced of any of those to assume the leadership of the Conservative Party, he was also the least experienced of any of the candidates to contest it in the post-war period.  The same applies for Ed Miliband and Labour.  And Nick Clegg was the least experienced leader of his party, and any of its various predecessors since 1945.

There is, of course, the possibility that this trio of inexperienced leaders is merely some fluke or chance occurrence, but this seems unlikely – not least when you study the contests from which they emerged victorious, since all were dominated by relatively inexperienced candidates.  As the article notes:

If we focus on just the top two candidates in each contest, then following the 2007 contest the Liberal Democrats would have been led by someone with just two years’ experience in the Commons; whichever of Clegg or Huhne had won, therefore, the Liberal Democrats would have been led by their least experienced leader ever. Similarly, whichever of the Milibands had won the 2010 Labour contest, Labour would have been led by someone with either five or nine years’ experience in the Commons, again a record low level of experience. For the Conservatives, it would have been four or 18 years. Of the six most likely potential winners, therefore, just one (David Davis) had more than a decade in the Commons under his belt.


This is also a sign of a significant change in British politics. Of the 53 candidates for the leadership of the three main political parties in the 16 contests between 1963 and 1994 only five had less than a decade’s experience in the Commons at the point at which they stood. Collectively they constituted fewer than 10 per cent of all the candidates. By the current tranche of contests, by contrast, a majority of the candidates had had under a decade’s experience in the Commons, including 83 per cent of those who came first or second in their contests.

Neither is it that we now necessarily prefer our politicians younger. The current trance of leaders are not as exceptional in their youth as they are in their inexperience. It is not the case that the leaders are inexperienced because they are young, more that they are young because they are so inexperienced. Nor does this change appear to be the result of changes in the way parties elect their leaders (although this has had a small effect).

The article concludes that instead the explanation lies in the changing nature of ‘experience’, with all three of the current leaders having significant political experience at a reasonably senior level before they entered the Commons.  The ‘career politician’ remains a minority in the Commons as a whole, with plenty of MPs who have a broader experience of the world.  But for those who want an accelerated route to the top, the career politicians now looks like the only game in town.

The full article – ‘Arise, Novice Leader! The Continuing Rise of the Career Politician in Britain’ – is available here.

Philip Cowley 

UPDATE: Here’s a thing. The piece above links to an academic article in Politics, which went through a rigorous process of peer review before being published, read by three different academics, all anonymously. And yet within an hour or so of putting it online this morning (free to view, for which thanks to Wiley-Blackwell), an undergraduate from the University of Birmingham had spotted a mistake in it. The mistake – David Davis was first elected in 1987, not 1983 – doesn’t undermine the article’s argument (if anything, it makes the case slightly stronger), but it’s still the sort of thing that makes you want to bang your head on the table in frustration. But at the same time, hurray for social media and engagement – which in my experience is a much more robust quality control mechanism than we think, just as it proved here.

Published inBritish Politics


  1. David Boothroyd David Boothroyd

    A very interesting topic. I’ve recently been reading Philip Williams’ biography of Hugh Gaitskell which comments on how Gaitskell, on assuming the Labour leadership at the age of 50 after ten years in Parliament, was regarded as exceptionally young and inexperienced; nowadays he would be on the old side.

    To add to your point about Jeremy Thorpe, while he was relatively young when he won the Liberal leadership in 1967, he was the second longest serving Liberal MP in Parliament; and the outgoing leader Jo Grimond was the only one who had longer service.

    I would also say that Menzies Campbell didn’t look particularly old until after he got cancer in the early 2000s. After that he looked older than his real age. Ed Miliband looks, if anything, younger than his real age.

  2. John Davies John Davies

    A comment on your “update”: in my experience as an academic copyeditor, the fact that an article has been through a “rigorous process of peer review” is no guarantee of mistakes at all. While said reviewers may be good at evaluating general merit, I’m never surprised when I find inconsistent spellings, names missed out of references lists, tables where percentages don’t add up to 100 and so on in the stuff I have to edit … Which is why the tendency of academic publishers to skimp on copyediting (or outsource it to India) should be resisted.
    BTW, I like your misspelling “trance of leaders”. Much more expressive than “tranche”

  3. Dan Dan

    The point of peer review isn’t to root out every error; it’s to check whether the piece is publishable, and to offer suggestions for its improvement. To claim that peer reviewers should spot every small mistake is fallacious.

  4. Hmmm…. Not so sure about that. Peer review obviously can’t root out every error, but this was a piece about the level of experience of candidates, and one of the facts cited about that was wrong. As it happens, it doesn’t undermine the argument (maybe, even makes it stronger), but shouldn’t we expect expert reviewers to spot things like that? When I review papers, it’s exactly these sort of things I look for, on the basis that, if the author has got the visible and checkable facts wrong, who knows what other mistakes are being made under the bonnet?

    I am, though, with John: proper copy editing is becoming increasingly rare, and you do notice the difference.

    Mind you, don’t know why I’m going on about it. It’s my own article that I’m kicking…!

  5. Great work! This is the type of information that should be shared across the internet. Disgrace on Google for now not positioning this publish upper! Come on over and consult with my site . Thank you =)

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