Babies and bathwater. Photo:Getty
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It's not just enough to "listen" to young people. They have to be respected, too

We need to reach for a more authentic, localised politics, in the wake of the Spad era, rather than just revert to the days of pinstripes and tweed. As the faux warts ‘n’ all allure of Ukip shows, there’s a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

This week I received a letter saying I had “no experience of the real world”. It came courtesy of my Conservative opponent in South Thanet (the three-way marginal where I’m the Labour candidate) and was a reference to the fact I am – shock horror – aged 25.

Having repeatedly been referred to by the candidate in question as “the Labour boy”, reading that I had no life experience did not cause the hours of existential soul-searching it might have. But it is frustrating, as a married father of two, that opponents still try to use my age as a stick to beat me with. Imagine, for a second, a younger candidate playing the age card in reverse, by attacking a 65 year-old as “world weary and beset with health problems”. There would rightly be hell to pay!

Were I up against an ex-Archbishop or prize-winning economist then there might be pause for thought. But my two opponents are a stockbroker cum truant MEP (a certain Mr Farage) and a tax avoidance expert who has run for office nine times – including five times for Ukip before defecting to the Conservatives. “Life experience”, it would seem, can only be acquired in the corridors of high finance or the chapels of Euroscepticism.

The last few years have seen the public reject machine politics, and with it the class of career politicians who move from Oxbridge to Westminster without encountering real life. But we need to reach for a more authentic, localised politics, in the wake of the Spad era, rather than just revert to the days of pinstripes and tweed. As the faux warts ‘n’ all allure of Ukip shows, there’s a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

I should add that this is not a party political issue, and I don’t doubt there’s a young Tory candidate somewhere being demeaned by a Labour silverback. It’s about the fact that my generation has been on the sharp end of the recession, and we deserve a stake in decisions.

Rick Edwards, campaigner on this issue and author of None of the Above, points out the importance of younger candidates in reaching younger voters, saying “it helps if you can see people in power who are a bit like you”. As it is under-30s are still humoured too much and respected too little, with the result that the old-style politics of dogma persists. And while “engaging young people” may be a buzz-phrase politicians are happy to use in the media, it can ring hollow on the campaign trail.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.