The pendulum has swung against the cult of youth. Why?
So much for reconciliation and unity. So much for Shadow Cabinet elections. In an act that was at once decisive and divisive, Jeremy Corbyn’s reshuffle this week has made absolutely clear that there is no new start. As he said at the time of his re-election, “sadly for everyone I’ll be the same Jeremy Corbyn.”
And so he is. Carrying out a snap reshuffle without forewarning is in fact good politics. For all that John Cryer might criticise his leader, the fact is that reshuffles have to come unexpectedly; anything else is a recipe for push-back, intrigue and chaos. Corbyn is also sensible to act while his mandate is fresh and his allocation of portfolios, whether out of choice or necessity, to so few of those who left in the summer has reopened the division that never really closed between the bulk of the PLP and the leadership. But it does mean that he now has a Shadow Cabinet he doesn’t have to distrust.
However, if the factional aspect within Labour has been closely analysed, one feature of the new line-up that’s been less remarked upon is the extent to which it’s led by older politicians.
Corbyn himself is 67 and the oldest leader of any major party in over 30 years. His Shadow Chancellor also qualifies for the state pension, as do Nick Brown and Jon Trickett. Two more Shadow Cabinet members – Dianne Abbott and David Anderson – are in their sixties, as will Nia Griffith be by the end of the year.
Given that the role of Shadow Ministers is not only to hold the government to account but to prepare for office, Labour could find itself going into the election with a sizable number of its top team in their late sixties or early seventies and – if successful – then expecting to serve several year more in office.
To some extent, Corbyn is simply making use of what he has available. With so many either refusing to serve or giving the wrong indications to the leadership, his available pool of talent is limited. His inner confidantes – McDonnell and Abbott – are also very long-standing associates so it’s unsurprising that they’re of the same generation. But it may be more than that.
There’s been if not a move to a preference for older politicians of late, then at least an age-agnosticism that’s come across many electorates. Across the Floor from Corbyn, Theresa May earlier this year became, at 59, the oldest person to become Britain’s prime minister since 1976. McDonnell’s opposite number, Philip Hammond, is the oldest Chancellor since 1979. Not only is entering your sixties no bar to high office but it’s not even an issue.
Nor is the trend a purely British one. Next month, Hillary Clinton will take on Donald Trump for the presidency of the United States. If she is elected, she’ll be at inauguration the fifth-oldest ever US president. Little more than a year later, she’d be second. If it’s Trump then he’d be the oldest person ever first elected to the White House. Similarly, across the Channel, the favourite to succeed Hollande in the Élysée Palace is already into his seventies. Again, age barely seems to enter into the debate.
What happened? Firstly, we shouldn’t get too carried away. There are counter-examples – Justin Trudeau and Matteo Renzi, for example – but the world is a big place and there always will be. Although those cases still show the potency of star appeal, the trend that seems to be underway is that image is losing out to policy.
Not that policy necessarily means substance but all the same, rather than putting faith in an individual as an individual, electorates increasingly prefer to support campaigners selling a message. So from Trump, Le Pen and others on the populist right selling national renewal and railing against foreigners and globalisation, to Corbyn and Sanders on the populist left abhorring the practices of big business and the effects of globalisation, to those like May or Juppé making a virtue of solid competence, the message matters.
What of Hillary? Is she not the antithesis of such a critique, running as policy-light as she is? To an extent yes, but she’s an exception that proves the rule. If she wins – and she probably will – it will be despite her character and despite her campaign. She may well be the least respected candidate ever to win the office; she just happens to be less unpopular than her opponent and to have been favoured with an unusually thin primary field. Rather than focus on her win (if a win it is), we should ask why and how first a self-declared socialist and then a hate-filled businessman and TV personality ran her so close.
They did so because in an uncertain and scary world, people want answers and critiques more, and generic blanding less. Pretty young faces might still have an advantage, other things being equal, but all things are now much less equal; the swing of the pendulum away from personality and towards policy has seen to that.