Are you experienced? British political leaders and their pre-leadership experience

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.

As this short article (‘Arise, Novice Leader! The Continuing Rise of the Career Politician in Britain’), published in Politics a few years ago showed, this was 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.

It is 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.

The article concluded that the explanation lay 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 most recent issue of Politics includes a (sort of) response to that article, by Stephen Barber (‘Arise, Careerless Politician: The Rise of the Professional Party Leader‘) which examines party leaders pre-leadership experience more broadly.  By quantifying non-political pre-parliamentary experience of post-war leaderships, Barber shows both that current leaders are relatively ‘careerless’ and that this is not historically unusual. And by reintroducing ‘political experience’ into the numbers, he demonstrates that Cameron, Clegg and Miliband are among the most experienced leaders since 1945 in terms of total pre-parliamentary work if further removed from the ‘real world’ of those they represent.

The good news is that Barber’s article is free to view.  The bad news is that the Cowley original piece isn’t.  That’s a glass half full or half empty, depending on how you look at these things.