Leaving the stage
Alastair Osborne looks forward to the upcoming Scottish election and ponders the ability of parties to enable new candidates to come forward, and the willingness or otherwise of incumbents to step aside for them.
Employers used to be able to force workers to retire at 65 (known as the Default Retirement Age), but this law was scrapped in April 2011. This means that you can keep working beyond 65 if you want or need to. However, when it comes to our elected politicians, they have never been required to retire on age grounds, and some go on and on long after they should have left the stage. How do you address that situation without compromising the important equality issues that led to scrapping the default retirement age?
There are many politicians who are well able to serve into their seventies and eighties and I hope with all my heart one of them becomes the new President of the USA in November. But what about those who really should think about making way for someone younger? You could argue that the employer (in this case both the political party and the electorate) has other remedies such as dismissal due to under-performance, so long as it is based on objective criteria.
The number of UK MPs standing down at a general election since 1979 is usually less than a hundred, with numbers rising above that only in 1997 and 2010 (a record 149). It would be nice to think that most of these were MPs who had reached an age when people in general think about retiring, especially with the added factor that MPs are committing to a further five years.
The reality is that there are always a number of reasons why MPs retire. There are those who sensibly decide that they are at the right age to step down. There are those who read the political runes and decide its better to go voluntarily before they are pushed. (This might account for the high numbers at the end of 18 years of Tory rule in 1997 and 13 years of Labour in 2010.) A few will have seriously blotted their copy book and have little choice. In 2019 there was a higher than usual number who had just had enough of party infighting and public abuse over Brexit and other issues.
Then there are those who are determined to try to hang on regardless, even though they have lost their party whip, gone independent or been deselected. They learn the hard way that MPs are not elected on a personal basis. Even when standing on the party ticket, having been a great constituency MP is no protection from a national voting tsunami against your party. There have even been MPs who have cynically stood in seats with no chance whatsoever of being re-elected.
At one time an MP was entitled to a much higher severance payment if defeated than if he or she stood down. When the West Fife ‘republican’ Labour MP, Willie Hamilton, was replaced by Henry McLeish in 1987, he chose to stand in the solid Tory seat of South Hams in Devon, coming third. It was assumed by some that this was to secure the higher severance payment but the truth was he didn’t qualify for that. Andrew Roth writing Hamilton’s obituary in the Guardian speculated “It was not impossible that he would have liked to cash in on any Tory tabloids claiming that this had been his motivation.”
When Martin Bell (the man in the white suit) defeated Neil Hamilton in Tatton in 1997 he stood on a promise to serve one term. He came to regret that, and so, rather than go back on his word, stood as an independent in another seat in 2001 (unsuccessfully).
I am writing about this because we are close to the next Scottish Parliament election and MSPs are all considering their futures. There are 21 current MSPs who were first elected in the class of 1999. 24 MSPs retired in 2016 and a similar number are likely to stand down this time. It’s hard to put an exact figure on this. Quite a few have already announced their intention to retire like Labour’s David Stewart and the SNPs Stewart Stevenson and Michael Russell. Others in a similar age bracket are likely to try to carry on. Some can’t make up their minds. James Dornan, SNP MSP for Glasgow Cathcart, was going, but now believes the effects of the coronavirus have left him with a lot of “unfinished business”. It’s difficult to see how clearing up “unfinished business” needs five more years.
Thanks to proportional representation there won’t be a rush to stand down from the Scottish Parliament because of a fear of being defeated. Most MSPs will feel they have a fair chance of being re-elected. The battle will be within the parties between incumbents and those impatient to take their place.
There will be precious few openings for new blood in the Labour group. Existing list MSPs are likely to get the top places and the polls don’t augur well for many breakthroughs in the constituencies. The SNP will have to deal with internal restlessness between Westminster and Holyrood. The SNP Westminster cohort have lost their influence there with such a large Tory majority and some MPs and former MPs are desperate to get elected to Holyrood where they see the party’s power base now residing. One battle is between Angus Robertson and Joanna Cherry for the Edinburgh Central nomination.
It will be interesting to see if any Scottish political party is prepared to take radical steps to force a change in the make up of their candidates for next year’s elections. The SNP have the easiest route with the opportunity to replace retiring male MSPs with candidates from all women shortlists. Scottish Labour will want to have more candidates from under-represented groups but this will not make any difference if they have little or no chance of being elected.
The song “old soldiers never die, they only fade away” probably started life during World War I. General Douglas McArthur parodied it in his address to the US Congress in 1951 with “old soldiers never die; young ones wish they would”. A generation of aspiring MSPs might say “old politicians never die; we just wish they would leave the stage”.