From The Times
THE two men and a woman sitting in a Westminster sushi bar are living proof that the young can still be passionate about politics.
The youngest MPs of each of the three main parties were meeting for the first time, and sat discussing the size of their majorities in the language that others might use to compare the size of their student loans.
Young MPs have been a fading breed in Parliament and Jo Swinson – the youngest at age 25 – thinks the trend needs to reverse. “I think you do need to represent people better in Parliament. Before I was elected I mentioned to young people at work that Sarah Teather was the youngest MP at 28, and they were amazed the youngest was that old.”
She belongs to the Liberal Democrats, who have a near monopoly on fresh-faced politicians, but when she met Andrew Gwynne, 30, a Labour MP, and Stephen Crabb, 32, a Conservative, it was with some relief – at last able to sound off about the pressure to dress old at election time.
Mr Crabb said: “People who end up in Parliament at our age, all of us had a peculiar interest in politics that started very young. So, in a way we probably have more in common with each other than with other people. We still face that problem, how to bridge that divide.”
All have a dim memory of Margaret Thatcher: for Ms Swinson in Scotland she was a childhood bogeyman, while Mr Crabb chuckles at the memory of making a pro-Thatcher election poster for his school in Wales. They are at a loss to explain why their political passion fired so young.
“People often ask why young people aren’t more interested in politics,” said Ms Swinson. “And I say, you’re asking the wrong person – I’m an MP.”
Mr Gwynne relates the stunned reaction when, aged 14, he told his school careers counsellor that he wanted to go into politics. He said: “She’d never heard that before, but she said, ‘Don’t be silly, what about computers?’”
The perception of politics as an old man’s game is wrong and it is a great match for the energy and idealism of the young, the new MPs argued. “There’s an idea that by spending 14 hours a day here you’re missing out on your youth,” said Mr Crabb. “But if you’re a young person wanting to change aspects of life, to make things better, this is a great place to be.”
As the institution becomes more modern, old-fashioned hierarchies may break down, with the faster promotion of talent. Women make up a fifth of MPs, and there are now 13 black and Asian MPs, but soon there will be only four aged 30 or under -out of a total of 646. In radio, Ms Swinson’s former industry, she said that there were 28-year-old directors of companies. “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” she said.
There are aspects of Parliament that seem quaint, said Ms Swinson tactfully, and Mr Gwynne said that he explained the sense of history to his young son as being like Harry Potter’s school, Hogwarts. Being part of such a small minority there is a great pressure on them to act twice their age. Yet they believe that the public, and young people in particular, most like politicians who are authentic, people who pretend are the biggest turn off.
So they battle between being true to themselves, and being told to look the part in dowdy suits.
“When I was first selected as a candidate, I got a quiet talk about the way I was dressed,” said Mr Crabb. “I was wearing what my friends were wearing, long shorts, T-shirts, but I was told I had to look like an MP in waiting.” Ms Swinson nods in agreement: “I spent eight years trying to look like I was 30.”
Mr Crabb replies: “I spent eight years trying to look 40.”
One day, they dream, looking like an MP and being young will not be so difficult.