Life

Councillor at 19: Remarkable tale of Rochdale teen demonstrates changing political appetites in Britain

By Jeremy Culley

Most 19-year-old lads are consumed by thoughts of drink, music, sport and women, with occasional consideration given to early years of work or university study.

Politics? Not really. Student unions aside, it is encouraging if they make the polling station on election day, let alone stand as a candidate.

But, in Rochdale last May, Liam O’Rourke was elected to represent the Middleton ward aged 19, becoming the North West’s youngest councillor.

Now 20, Liam’s astonishing progress – made with all three major party leaders in their 40s – suggests young politicians are more electable than ever before.

Surely British people want experience and nous in austere times, rather than a clean-shaven fresh face spouting neat sound bites.

Apparently not, with 41-year-old Chancellor George Osborne tasked with rejuvenating Britain’s economy.

Even Liam encountered few public doubts when campaigning and he feels frontline politicians must now be ‘young, dynamic and in with the times’ to succeed.

He said: “It was very rare someone brought up my age. Interestingly it was probably more of an issue in terms of being selected by the party.

“They were concerned a young person wasn’t electable whereas actually we’re just as electable.”

Liam has been the butt of a smattering of opposition jokes – ‘the last time this happened one of our members wasn’t even born’ – but takes everything on the chin and said most colleagues afford him due respect.

Is it any wonder given Labour’s leader Ed Miliband, 43, is 16 years younger than the average councillor.

Today, the leading British politicians who adorn newspaper pages and fill TV screens – are unprecedentedly young.

Winston Churchill became Prime Minister at 65, leaving politics 15 years later. Tony Blair left mainstream politics aged 53, after running Britain for ten years.

Meanwhile, Sir Menzies Campbell resigned the Liberal Democrat leadership because of age concerns and – before the 2010 election – his successor Nick Clegg and David

Cameron benefitted from the media portraying Gordon Brown as out of touch.

The issue is not solely relevant to leaders – the current shadow cabinet’s average age is 48, 12 years younger than Clement Attlee’s 1945 team.

The public’s need has become superficial because of modernisation and the media, according to Liam.

“It’s a follow on from Blair, walking into Downing Street with a guitar. Certainly with Campbell the media were key,” he said.

“One of my earliest memories of a politician was Dead Ringers’ portrayal of him in his grandfather chair with a tartan blanket on.

“And with Brown, I know people who wouldn’t vote for him under any circumstances.”

Theories suggest the media demand leaders with young, school-age children.

This conveys a sense of contemporary experience with the NHS and schools, making older politicians look outdated.

Alice Sansome, 91, has voted in every post-war general election and never considers candidates’ age although she agrees the media influence public perceptions.

“In 1945 there was never much on TV, most people didn’t have one,” she said. “In the 50s, people started to but nothing like the last 20 years.

“We heard more about last year’s American election than many previous British ones.”

This combination of media scrutiny and influence is unique to politics.

Other professions seem to value experience more – to become a QC, for example, barristers must have been practising for ten years.

Year

Average age

1979

49.6

1983

48.8

1987

49.0

1992

50.0

1997

49.3

2001

50.3

2005

51.2

2010

49.9

Meanwhile, 65-year-old Roy Hodgson was appointed England football manager last year, while the Premier League’s most celebrated boss, Sir Alex Ferguson, is 71.

Neither judges nor football managers are publicly elected.

Liam and Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk suggest the current swathe of young leaders is misleading – the average age of MPs is scarcely different to when Margaret Thatcher won power in 1979.

Liam said: “I think it might be a trick of the eye. In 2010, after the expenses scandal, there was a massive turnover of MPs.

“Timing is massively important in politics. If I was two years younger, I wouldn’t have been able to stand.

“I was lucky. When I wanted to become a councillor, Labour were on the rise in Rochdale, I wasn’t replacing anybody, the seat had become vacant.

“It’s unfair. Fortune is a horrible mistress.”

Mr Danczuk agrees and has seen little evidence that people discriminate against older candidates.

“I don’t think there is a demand for younger leaders, it is just the way things have worked out,” he said.

However, this fails to explain why parties choose young leaders from their ranks.

Also, the average age of MPs is kept artificially high by long-standing incumbents in party strongholds – such as 80-year-old Labour MP Dennis Skinner.

Recruiting him to the shadow cabinet would hardly engage young people.

Lowering the voting age to 16 – which will happen for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum – should have that effect.

Manchester University student Elin Benjamin, 18, certainly thinks so after first voting last year.

“What better way to engage a politically disaffected youth,” she said.

“Politics directly affects the lives of 16 and 17-year-olds so give them responsibility, give them the education and give them the vote.”

Interestingly Mrs Sansome, 73 years senior to Miss Benjamin, agrees and said: “Don’t see why not – if they feel strongly enough about it, they should.”

Liam – who was too young to vote in 2010 – is now in his final year of a Politics degree at Manchester University, and, despite a rapid rise, acts with total humility, highlighted by his grounded thoughts on a possible Westminster future.

“It’s not up to me, but to people approving of my politics. I’d never rule it out, that’d be naive.”

Liam would be yet another young face at the forefront of British politics, but a most welcome one if he made a similar impact in parliament as he has at Rochdale Council.

As Mr Danczuk said, he has been a ‘breath of fresh air’.

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