What can we learn from the ages?

With party leadership currently in play, and in an effort to acquaint myself with our history, I took a look at Liberal/Alliance/LibDem results of general elections since 1950. Here’s what I found.

YearLiberal SeatsParty LeaderLeader’s Age
19506Clement Davis66
19516Clement Davis67
19556Clement Davis71
19596Jo Grimond46
19649Jo Grimond51
196612Jo Grimond52
19706Jeremy Thorpe41
197414Jeremy Thorpe44
197413Jeremy Thorpe45
197911David Steel41
198323David Steel/Roy Jenkins45/63
198722David Steel/David Owen49/49
199220Paddy Ashdown51
199746Paddy Ashdown56
200152Charles Kennedy41
200562Charles Kennedy45
201057Nick Clegg43
20158Nick Clegg48
201712Tim Farron47

Some things become apparent.
1. With the exception of 1987 (SDP Alliance) and 2015 (post-coalition) the party has always held or increased its number of seats when a leader has run a general election campaign for the second time.
2. Peak seats held were under Charles Kennedy who was the joint-youngest (along with Jeremy Thorpe) LibDem leader ever to have fought a general election.
3. The oldest leader, Clement Davis, variously 66, 67 and 71 years old at elections, never brought home more than 6 seats.
4. Relatively few parliaments have run 5 years, only 4 out of 18.

Britain’s oldest-ever Prime Minister was Henry Temple, 70 at the time of taking office in 1855: the only septuagenarian PM we’ve ever had. The oldest 20th Century PM was Neville Chamberlain, 68 when elected in 1937, serving 2 years, 11 months.

Of the 11 post-1950 PM’s the average age on taking office has been 53 years – both Heath and Thatcher actually being 53 when they entered number 10.

Just saying, in view of our current leadership deliberations.

Incidentally Labour’s best result post-1950 came from GE1997 (418 seats), when Blair was 42. The Tories’ best performance was in 1983 (397 seats) when Thatcher was 57.

* Ken Mumm is a passionate pro-European, loves cosmopolitan life and was politicised by the Brexit question. He joined the Lib Dems as the only sensible place to fight those bent on destroying the future for ourselves and our children.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Just struck me, looking at the lovely table (thanks, LibDem Voice) that we’ve never gone into an election with a female leader. Strange, for a party calling itself liberal/Liberal.

  • Is the insinuation from this article that we should be negatively judging Vince Cable because of his age?

  • Peter Martin 11th Jul '17 - 12:06pm

    I don’t like going back too far into the party’s history. It’s obvious that the modern Lib Dem party isn’t at all the same party as it was the last time it was in Govt , just prior to WW1, or even in the 50’s. But as you’ve mentioned “the ages”…..

    In my very early years I remember being taught, in no uncertain terms, that the Liberals were just another form of Tories. In my area, Bolton West, the local Tories and Libs had been in a Pact to keep out Labour. The Tories stood down in favour of the Libs in the 1951, 1955, and 1959 elections and so the Libs won with Tory support.

    Lab duly won in 1964 once the Lib – Tory pact had broken down! So it wasn’t just the usual ‘Libs are Tories with a smile’ jibe that we’ve often heard. There was real substance to the accusation.

  • GWYN WILLIAMS 11th Jul '17 - 12:09pm

    Clement DaviEs not Davis. Our highest post War vote share was in 1983 under Roy Jenkins and David Steel. Did the blend of Steel’s relative youth and Jenkins’ maturity contribute to the Alliance’s performance? Could youthful Swinson and mature Cable prove similarly attractive to the electorate?

  • Michael Mullaney 11th Jul '17 - 12:21pm

    Interesting chart and thanks for doing this research. However I wouldn’t read too much into the performance of the party based on the age of the leader and then use it to conclude that a young leader means great results and an old one bad ones, which appears to be the inference from the article. Firstly nearly all the leaders were in their 40s, and they achieved a whole variety of results, one of the youngest, Jeremy Thorpe in 1970 returned one of the worst results in party history.

    Given we had only one leader over 60 in that period you can’t really draw a trend from that one leaders results and apply it to any future leader who happened to be over 60. Whoever led the party in the 1950s was going to have a tough time. Not least when the party’s loss of deposits in 1950 led to the switch from the “broad front” of contesting most seats to the “narrow front” of fighting only just over a 100 in 1951 and 1955. The party only survived in the 1951/55 election because the Tories stood down in most of the seats we defended.

  • @ Peter Martin. Yes, Bolton West was a pact – but Arthur Holt MP was no Tory. It was a privilege to know him and to enjoy his wicked satirical sense of humour. He once got suspended from the Chamber by the Speaker for saying the Tory MP for Cheadle was all p. And wind and no substance. He was also incredibly grave in WW2 as a Pow on the Burma railway taking beatings to protect his men.

    Lovely nice man of great guts and character.

  • Brave not grave.

  • Ken,

    “Britain’s oldest-ever Prime Minister was Henry Temple, 70 at the time of taking office in 1855: the only septuagenarian PM we’ve ever had. The oldest 20th Century PM was Neville Chamberlain, 68 when elected in 1937, serving 2 years, 11 months.”

    I think Gladstone was Britain’s oldest Prime Minister being elected at the age of 82. He resigned for the final time when he was 84 years old. In the 20th Century, Churchill was nearly 77 when he won the 1951 election and served until 1955 when he retired to the backbenches at the age of 81.

  • Joe, Gladstone first took office in 1868 when he was 58 years, 340 days old. His fourth premiership started 1892, when he would have been 82. Easier, perhaps, to take back a premiership than to win it for the first time?

    Also, of course, different times 120 years later with external pressures on politicians because of the 24/7 news environment placing much more pressure on a leader’s stamina.

  • paul barker 11th Jul '17 - 1:53pm

    I think the point of Ken Munns graphic is that our Leaders tend to do a better job on their 2nd General Election. This is another argument for making sure that Jo Swinsons gets lots of exposure to the Voters.

  • So, is ageism still alive and well in the Lib Dems? It used to amuse me when I was a member of the party that someone could be of an age that they could be considered to be too old to be leader and yet someone else of similar age could be considered too young to be a local councillor.

    I have a whole bucket of things ready to criticise Vince Cable about. His age is not one of them.

  • jayne Mansfield 11th Jul '17 - 2:23pm

    @ paul barker,
    Do you think that the electorate will put much faith in Vince Cable as leader, when it is clear that a section of his party can’t wait to push him off his perch when someone they deem preferable is willing to take the position ?

  • Is the insinuation from this article that we should be negatively judging Vince Cable because of his age?

    That would only be relevant if there was another applicant for the post who was younger, wouldn’t it? If nobody else is nominated then the point is moot.

  • Joseph Bourke 11th Jul '17 - 2:49pm


    the economist has an interesting feature on the over 65’s this week https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21724814-get-most-out-longer-lives-new-age-category-needed-what-call-time-life

    In many of the countries I have lived, in the head of government was rather elderly.Yasuhiro Nakasone was 69 when he retired as PM in Japan as was George H. Bush when he lost to Bill Clinton in the USA. Our own head of state at 91 is no spring chicken and has dealt with 13 PM’s of varying ages to date.

    Age is not so much an issue as the ability to unite a disparate membership, command respect in the House of Commons and inspire public confidence in the party.

  • Michael Mullaney
    The loss of a large number of deposits on fighting a broad front in 1950 did not affect the party financially. Major Herbert Harris, the chief agent, had taken othe precaution of taking out insurance against losing deposits.
    However, the decision was taken to fight on a narrow front in 1951, probably because division associations, as constituency associations were then described, would not have had time to replenish their fighting funds.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 11th Jul '17 - 3:06pm

    Ken , Sir Hehry Campbell -Bannerman was the oldest leader the party had , and was older than Chamberlain as a twentieth century pm, as 1906, and the best Liberal government ever, counts for something, though I am biased as Sir Henry shared my birthday, or his !

  • BTW – oldest post-1950 PM taking office for the first time was Callaghan, 64 yrs.

  • Peter Martin
    The election pacts between the Conservatives and Liberals in the two Bolton and two Huddersfield constituencies helped both the Conservatives and Liberals, with two Conservatives and two Liberals being elected, instead of probably four Socialists.
    I believe the arrangement was approved by Churchill, who had belonged to the Liberal and Conservative parties, and his wife Clementine Churchill, who was a quiet Liberal.

    The Liberal recovery really began when Jo Grimond became the Liberal Leader after the death of Clement Davies, who had held the post since 1945 when the Liberal Leader Sir Archibald Sinclair lost his seat after touring the country supporting other Liberal candidates.
    Liberals certainly were not Conservatives, but occupied a position further to the right than the Liberal Democrats now do. However I can remember as constituency press officer (and a Young Liberal) heading a report published in the local press in about 1960 ‘Liberals a party of the Left’.

  • Richard Underhill 11th Jul '17 - 6:14pm

    After the 1951 general election Winston Churchill offered the Liberal leader a seat in the cabinet for a coalition, but was refused because he thought it would be the end of the Liberal Party as a separate entity, according to a descendent addressing a dinner at the National Liberal Club.
    Sinclair was Air Minister during World War 2, working under Defence Minister PM Winston Churchill and with Minister for Aircraft Production Beaverbrook, a friend of Churchill’s and the owner of the Daily Express.

  • Richard Underhill 11th Jul '17 - 6:29pm

    In 2005 Charles Kennedy had taken a position on Iraq War 2 different from the Labour-Tory consensus, thereby attracting numerous voters we did not usually get, nothing to do with his age. He always had an old head on young shoulders.

  • Oh dear, one or two points. Temple was better known as Lord Palmerston and died in office age 81. Gladstone was our oldest PM,Bolton and Huddersfield had two Liberal and two Labour MPS, Campbell-Bannerman was younger than Chamberlain, and the 1960’s Libs were to the left of the present lot in my experience.

    I’ll take Lorenzo’s word about birthdays though I’m sure he never met CB. The last Lib govt was good in many ways but not on female suffrage.

  • Well, one thing is clear –
    Scottish leaders always do better than their predecessors !

  • Richard Underhill 11th Jul '17 - 8:54pm

    Jo Grimond was leader after Jeremy Thorpe and before David Steel.

  • A bit more. Oldest 20th century leader when first elected PM was Campbell-Bannerman in 1905, aged 69. Average age of 1900-1950 PMs when first taking office 60. Average age of all 20th/21st century PMs when first taking office, 56.5 years.

    Outliers – Cambell-Bannerman, 69: Blair & Cameron, both 43.

    As far as I can see, there has never been a 74 yr old (or older) taking the Prime Minister role for the first time.

    My source:

  • Richard
    “Jo Grimond was leader after Jeremy Thorpe and before David Steel.”

    You may be right, in which case Wikipedia needs correcting. It shows Grimond as leader at GE1966, Thorpe at GE1970, GE1974 (Feb) and GE1974 (Oct).


  • Another oddity. Of the 21 20th/21st century PM, 12 have names beginning A, B, or C.
    Cable would have a good chance on that metric, if not on age!
    Guess them if you wish, in which case look away now.


  • @ Richard Underhill. Jo Grimond resigned after the 1966 election when Jeremy Thorpe defeated Eric Lubbock and Emlyn Hooson to become Leader. After the Thorpe scandal broke Thorpe resigned and Jo stepped in again temporarily for six months until the election of David Steel.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Jul '17 - 10:10pm

    The article should be clearer that it is talking about age “when first taking office”, otherwise as mentioned Gladstone was way older.

    I don’t see Vince’s age as being an issue. It’s all about performance to me and he is the only MP willing to do it and I think he will do a good job too. We should value his experience.

  • A Social Liberal 11th Jul '17 - 10:25pm

    Why is noone coming out with the obvious – one leader oversaw a catastrophic loss of seats in his second election

  • Lorenzo Cherin 11th Jul '17 - 11:29pm

    Thank you to Ken for showing I got it right on Sir Henry, David was wrong on the age, right
    that we do share a birthday, though mine a hundred and thirty years after his !

  • Michael Mullaney 11th Jul '17 - 11:54pm

    Libereal. Major Harris was a wise man as Lloyds of London found out to their cost as they apparently never expected us to lose that many deposits. (The insurance claim would only pay out if we lost more than 50 deposits; we lost 319).

    The narrow front approach of 1951 and 1955 seems to have been a combination of, as you say, local parties on the ground lacking resources to fight seats, so shortly after the last one.

    Also insurance companies presumably being less naive about our prospects of saving our deposits after what happened to Lloyds in 1950, and a reluctance by those on high in the party to fight too many seats due to the embarrassment caused by those listening to the BBC Radio coverage of the election night where when, apparently, as seat after seat was declared the radio announcer said “and the Liberal candidate lost their deposit”. Back in 1950 we lost 67% of our deposits. This time we lost 59%. However back then to save your deposit you had to get 12.5% of the vote now it’s only 5%.

    Which is fortunate as if the old deposit level of 12.5% had been in place at this election we would have lost 86% of our deposits…

  • Lorenzo well done. As pm is the key. CB resigned with heart trouble a fortnight before his death age 71 6 months. Chamberlain died of cancer older at 71 and 8 months – but resigned as pm five months earlier. A tube of Smarties is your prize.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th Jul '17 - 12:53am

    Thank you David , trust you like my agreement on your principled stance I support on Ruth and the horribly named dementia tax …?!

  • In the 1950s the Liberal Party was small but many in the Conservative and Labour parties held liberal values. In today’s world an increasing number in the Conservative and Labour parties are illiberal.

  • On the 1951 election fought on a narrow front:
    It’s an interesting counterfactual as to what would have happened had the Liberal Party contested as many seats as it had in 1950. The immediate effects would be obvious – loss of lots of deposits and almost certainly no extra seats – but the second order effects could have changed history.

    The Liberal candidates would have got SOME votes – but who from? Studies of the period show that the churn between Liberal and Conservative was far higher than between Liberal and Labour, so it’s likely that Liberal-inclined voters without a candidate would have split more in favour of the Conservative candidate than the Labour candidate.

    We have opinion polls from the time (thanks to Mark Pack’s encyclopaedic efforts) and the drop in Liberal support from prior to the campaign to the result in years where we fought on narrow fronts is considerable – primarily because Liberal-inclined voters in most of the country didn’t have a Liberal candidate to vote for. We can use these polls to extrapolate what the scores-on-the-doors would have been had we stood widely, and if we use the rule of thumb that these extra votes would have come in the ration 2/3rds from Con and 1/3rd from Lab (which looks fair), then (assuming the pacts in Huddersfield and Bolton stood, and that swing would be fairly uniform (which it tended to be in the Fifties), we’d end up with:

    Con/National 44.3% (308 seats), Lab 47.0% (308 seats), Lib 8.0% (6 seats), Others 3 seats [Irish Labour 1 seat (Jack Beattie), Irish Republicans 2 seats (Michael O’Neill and Cahir Healy)].

    [This assigns seats won by Con by under 1.5% over Labour in reality to Labour thanks to the split vote, other than Bolton East]

    So Churchill would have failed to win a majority again, on his third consecutive attempt – would pressure to Coalition have been far higher? Could pressure for PR have been put on? Would Churchill have resigned earlier (heralding Anthony Eden’s rise while still healthy)? Who would have been chosen Speaker, given the closeness?

  • Laurence Cox 12th Jul '17 - 7:59pm

    I am surprised that neither the author nor commenters BTL have made the obvious inference that Tim Farron should not have been so precipitously pushed out as Party leader as his profile with the public would have been higher second time around (and HQ might have made fewer mistakes in the campaign).

  • Vince Cable is head and shoulders above the other party leaders as a potential PM. He can use his experience and wisdom to great effect.

  • Laurence, agreed.

    Peter, history shows that no 74 (or older) party leader has ever been elected as PM for the first time. Rather, the trend has been towards younger leaders. If this parliament runs full-term VC will be 78 or 79 for the campaign. Apart from age bear in mind that he also carries baggage from the coalition years and from his less-than-clear stance on matters Brexit over the last year. You can be sure the media will attack him head-on on this.

    However, it’s all moot, if no one is going to stand against him.

  • @Libereal Jo Grimond took over as Liberal leader following Clement Davies’ resignation not his death.

  • @ Mr Munn You really must be living in Alice in Wonderland land if you have any expectation that Mr Cable will become a first time PM next time round.

    He will sort out the party on a no nonsense basis, lay the foundations for the future, and be an exemplar for future younger leaders who are still learning their craft.

  • @ Laurence Cox No mention of :- “Tim Farron should not have been so precipitously pushed out.”

    It makes a nonsense of the Party’s claim to be open, transparent and democratic that this happened at the whim of a few un-elected Lib Dem Lords. They know who they are – it’s time the rest of us did.

  • David,

    Why would we choose a leader that we don’t expect ever to be able to lead us into government? That doesn’t sound like laying the foundations for the future to me. Building for the future would be to choose and raise the profile of a leader capable of – one day -occupying Downing Street.

  • David Evans 13th Jul '17 - 7:59am

    ken, If you only want to choose a leader who can lead us into government, I suggest to you that all of our MPs are too old to be able to do it.

    We have 12 MPs and are polling 7.4%. In five years we went from government possibles to almost zero. Dreams are fine, but a bit of realism is needed in a crisis.

  • @ David Evans. I admire Mr Munn’s enthusiasm and it’s obvious that Dickens ‘Great Expectations’ is on his history reading list as well as Wikipedia.

    I had great expectations that Jo Grimond was heading for Downing Street after the Orpington by-election in 1962……….I’m still waiting.

  • nvelope2003 13th Jul '17 - 3:46pm

    The Liberals got 9 seats in 1950 – 6 losses (some because the seat was abolished or Labour contested it then but not in 1945) and 3 gains (Huddersfield West, Orkney and Shetland and Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

  • David,

    Macron went from zero to power in 18 months.

    I, like I suspect many of the party’s recent recruits, did not join to be told there is no realistic chance of exercising power for a generation or more. It’s time to stop regarding membership as a hobby.

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