The under-30 club: Life in the Commons for Britain's youngest MPs
Talking to Angela Crawley, Kirsty Blackman, Tom Pursglove and William Wragg
Some 13 aspiring politicians entered the House of Commons last year under the age of 30. Two came from the Labour party and a further five from the Conservatives. Leading the charge of the under-30s was the SNP with six representatives.
The ‘baby of the house’, 20-year-old SNP MP Mhairi Black, is the best known of the brood after ousting Labour heavyweight Douglas Alexander from his seat in Paisley and Renfrewshire South. In doing so she became the youngest member of parliament since, at the very least, the Reform Act of 1832.
Overall, 18-29-year-olds take up 2% of the green benches, a slight fall on the 15 MPs in the last parliament.
Some 409 MPs are aged 40-59, comprising nearly two thirds of the 650 elected representatives. Sixteen Labour MPs and eight Conservatives are over the age of 70. The average age of MPs is 51, but of the new 2015 entrants it is significantly lower at 44.
What can we deduce from all this? There is a steady influx of MPs starting their parliamentary careers at a younger age. Also, twenty-somethings are very much in the minority of MPs. Not a startling revelation, but it does pose some questions as to how young politicians integrate into a system traditionally dominated by more senior generations, and cope with being in the public eye in an increasingly volatile political environment.
The youngest Conservative is 27-year-old Tom Pursglove (title picture). The Corby MP, who defeated Labour’s Andy Sawford in the east Northamptonshire seat, gathered attention as an ardent backer of leaving the European Union, co-founding Brexit group Grassroots Out with fellow Tory Peter Bone earlier this year. After graduating, he worked for Daventry MP Chris Heaton-Harris as a parliamentary assistant. William Wragg, 28, another Brexiteer, parked a career in teaching to stand in Hazel Grove, taking a seat held by the Liberal Democrats since 1997.
Pursglove is unusual in that he woke up aged 13 with an epiphany – he realised he wanted to be an MP. "I was always interested and I was quite fortunate in that I woke up when I was 13 and I knew I wanted to be a politician. It always stuck me,” he tells TP.
“While a lot of my friends wanted to be lawyers, they wanted to be bankers, they wanted to be doctors, I was the mad one that wanted to be a politician."
Wragg, a chum of Pursglove’s, did not have a similar enlightenment, though his time as a councillor gave him a taste for elected office. Before becoming an MP, his exposure to Westminster was limited, but Tory veterans have helped him get through his first 14 months in parliament – despite contradictory advice on how to navigate its unwieldy hallways.
“I think that one thing I would say is that those who’ve been here for going on 30 years or more were as welcoming and inclusive of new members as they were of their own generation, if that makes sense,” he says.
“One of the things I’ve found most helpful actually is steering through a private members’ bill this year. That has been very useful for just understanding procedure of parliament and bills, commons and committee stage etcetera, has been very useful. The positive is that you work with such a range of people.”
Being an MP brings with it a level of scrutiny unlike many careers. Pursglove, who has been involved in politics in one form or another for years (he began leafleting for the Conservatives as a teenager) says matching work with a social life is about moderation.
“It’s about being responsible, isn’t it? It’s about being sensible. You know, I’m the first to say that I enjoy a pint, I enjoy going to watch sport, I enjoy all those things. I’m a keen cricketer… so it’s different and actually your time commitments in this job are just enormous,” he says.
“With this job come enormous responsibilities, it’s such an honour and a privilege to be a member of parliament. I think making small sacrifices along the way is a very small price to pay.”
Wragg (above) believes that while his friends can enjoy a freer lifestyle, they in turn covet aspects of his day job. “I do, where possible, maintain a semblance of a social life, however fragmented that may be at times. I think it all depends on what people want from members of parliament,” he says.
“I hear it all the time - in the press particularly - people want ‘normal people’. And so maybe an interesting thing is - are MPs therefore judged in the same way, or are they judged at a much higher bar of judgment? So there’s a contradiction there I think between people wanting ‘normal people’, but then when MPs behave normally that is a problem.”
Wragg courted headlines earlier this year after he revealed he had moved back into his parents’ home in Greater Manchester to save up for a deposit. He ventured briefly into journalists’ firing line for speaking out about affording a home while on an MPs’ £74,000 salary. Reporters were door stepping his family and ringing his mum for comment. He believes an often ruthless media environment could put off millennials from seeking elected office.
“I’m relatively thick-skinned, I’ve chosen to do this, yet I think there’s a need for fairness. I’ve always tried to be fair with people regardless of what they do or what their positions are. I think it could put people off; it’s a shame if it did because people wonder, maybe it’s a stereotype, but people have a perception of politics being full of megalomaniac nut jobs. Well, maybe a pressure-cooker atmosphere suits that kind of person,” he says.
Thought it could detract people’s enthusiasm from seeking office, “steeliness, resilience and fortitude” are qualities not immune from people in their 20s, he adds.
SNP MPs Angela Crawley, 29, and Kirsty Blackman, 29, like many in Nicola Sturgeon’s party, secured landslide victories in Labour strongholds. Blackman succeeded outgoing MP Frank Doran in Aberdeen North, which up until 8 May had been a Labour seat since 1935. Crawley became MP for Lanark and Hamilton East replacing Labour’s Jimmy Hood, who had been in post since the constituency’s creation in 2005.
Both were late applicants to stand at the election, having been galvanised by the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, but that’s not to say the SNP pair are strangers to politics. Blackman became an SNP councillor in Hilton in 2007; Crawley worked in Holyrood after graduating from Stirling University before a flutter in the private sector.
Blackman (above) has two young children with her partner, who has taken on a part-time role to provide care for the kids at home while she is away in Westminster. It has been a challenging transition and represents a “huge switch” – Blackman was able to balance childcare and her role as a councillor while her partner was in full time work – but she says there are some perks.
“It hasn’t been easy for the kids, you know, it’s not been terrible – it’s okay as it’s ever going to be. And the kids are having a blast and my husband is enjoying looking after them. So that is good and actually it’s quite good because at weekends the kids get to go along to some of the stuff that I go to,” she explains.
While Crawley describes being an MP and representing constituents as a “privilege”, she takes issue with more arcane Westminster practices. “In a sense I anticipated that it would be quite traditional... What I didn’t anticipate was just exactly how inefficient it would be in reality,” she says.
“The amount of time spent in the voting lobbies, the complete unwillingness to change anything without coming back to what has always been, which I think probably stands in the way of quite a lot of progress that could be made.”
So what about the joys of London life? Armed with a decent salary, living subsidised in a vibrant metropolis, surely they must be reaping the rewards? It would be fair to say the SNP contingent have not been able to take advantage of capital-living.
“Actually when you’re here, it’s not like living in London, because you just spend all of your time at parliament, pretty much,” says Blackman, who had only previously visited for her 21st birthday and to peruse the Millennium Dome.
“It’s not like you get to go shopping or visit the attractions very often. These things don’t happen; you pretty much get up, go to work, spend the whole day at work and come home late at night.”
Crawley (above) believes parliament “is designed to work for some people but not everyone”, particularly MPs with exorbitant commutes.
“If you live anywhere outside the kind of main London-centric area then you’ve got to travel, you’ve got to stay over,” she says.
“For a lot of people that means time away from their families, time away from their home, time away from their constituents where they could be doing invaluable work as well.”
She adds: “I don’t think any of us are really living the life in London. It’s a kind of fallacy that you get to enjoy all this free time.”
Labour’s Louise Haigh (right), 28, and Cat Smith (left), 31, have both seen a quick rise up the ministerial food chain under Jeremy Corbyn, who they nominated for the leadership. The former represents Sheffield Heeley and is shadow minister for digital industries. A former Unite shop steward, Haigh also worked for insurance firm Aviva before standing in 2015.
Smith is MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood and was recently moved to shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs in Corbyn’s prolonged reshuffle, following a stint as shadow minister for women.
She worked for the Christian Socialist Movement after graduating from Lancaster University, also working part-time for Corbyn and later as a policy officer for the British Association of Social Workers. While the party only have two MPs who entered the Commons under 30, 27 candidates in the demographic stood for election in 2015, according to research by parliamentarycandidates.org
Cynics could question what twenty-somethings bring to the political table. Ultimately, do the MPs under 30 have the world experience necessary to help enhance debate?
Pursglove was a councillor in Wellingborough from age 18 before working for fellow Tory Chris Heaton Harris and mucking in on the Corby by-election in 2012. The SNP’s Crawley was mid-way through a law degree and would have gone into the profession should she not have stood at the election. Her colleague Blackman, meanwhile, initially trained to be a doctor before becoming a councillor, and says she would have gone into teaching should she not have become an MP.
Tory MP Wragg worked in learning support for children with special educational needs, and believes outside experience can be beneficial in the Commons.
“I’ve only had a brief career outside politics I suppose, but I think it’s advantageous to have done something, or to have done something outside perhaps for a time,” the Tory MP says.
If there is a stigma surrounding younger MPs, are the politicians experiencing it in the corridors of Westminster? The SNP’s Mhairi Black spoke out earlier this year about being “patronised” during her first 12 months in parliament.
Blackman, like the rest of our MPs, says she is “very rarely” made aware of her age, a fact that diverges from her time as a councillor.
“When I first joined the council they didn’t pretty much listen to anything I said because I was young and female… but here there’s less of that,” she says.
“I think there’s kind of a mutual respect that everybody who’s here has been elected. Even from the other parties – in the main – there is not too much in the way of people patronising.”
Though the SNP MPs are cool on their affection for Westminster, they each see it as a vehicle through which they can influence debate and policy.
“The level of debate is really good at times,” Blackman says.
“I’m on an all-party group for population growth and reproductive health, and basically it’s about ensuring that women in foreign countries have choice.
“That’s something that I’m interested in and it’s something that I’m able to get involved in because there are those opportunities here. Those are the biggest positives in terms of life in parliament.”