Ollie Middleton is the student running for Labour in Bath. Photo: Anoosh Chakelian
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Meet Ollie Middleton, the teenager running to be a Labour MP

Ollie Middleton, a 19-year-old student, is the Labour candidate for Bath fighting to become parliament’s youngest ever member.

What were you doing at the age of 18? Sweating over exams in a clammy school sports hall? Scampering into the pubs and clubs that had so dispiritingly remained off limits until your 18th birthday? Picking out your least embarrassing bed sheets before setting off to university?

Well, Ollie Middleton is a different kind of teenager. When he was 18, the Labour party selected him as its candidate to be Bath’s next MP, in December 2013. Now aged 19, if he wins in the constituency in May, he will become parliament’s youngest ever member.

And when I meet him at Bath Labour’s smart honey stone-fronted building, Century House, in the centre of the city, it seems his year as a candidate has made him into quite the mature modern Labour figure. Although one does get the impression his approach to politics has always been more adult than adolescent. Let’s just say he’s more One Nation than onesie.

His sandy hair is smartly gelled through in a neat quiff, and he is sporting the smart casual outfit of a half-holidaying politico: grey blazer, black jeans, black suede shoes and a blue shirt – no tie, of course. This somewhat New Labour look serves as a reminder that Middleton was born just two years before Tony Blair’s landslide to government in 1997.

We sit down to talk in the front room of the office. It was refurbished a few months ago, and the team here are very happy with the result. Glossy red-painted walls bearing prints of historic propaganda posters of toiling British workers look down on a chunky wooden table in the centre of the room, with “Bath Labour Party” chiselled into the surface. A lifesize cardboard cut-out of Ed Miliband, hands clasped, looks earnestly on at us from one corner.

“I'll go out for a few drinks and bump into people I know, and straight away it's the first thing they ask me about,” Middleton half smiles, half sighs, about his now year-long candidacy. It is telling that one of the most difficult questions he finds to answer during our interview is whether or not he finds it easy to switch off.

“Ermm. I suppose. I mean, it's one of those things, you can only switch off so much. I still kind of look at my emails and stuff, and if there's something I really need to do, I will do it. But I suppose I do to a large extent, when I'm with my friends, for example, I do feel as though I am able to switch off from politics, which – as much as I enjoy politics – is sometimes quite nice!”

But Middleton, who is in his second year studying politics and international relations at Westminster University, has always been obsessed with Labour politics. He founded Bath’s Young Labour branch when he was still at school – his local comprehensive, Ralph Allen, in Bath – and has long been campaigning for the party. Nevertheless, it came as a surprise to many when he beat the frontrunner, a 45-year-old international law professor, in Labour’s selection contest in Bath.

“I guess I obviously said and did the right things and people ended up voting for me,” he grins modestly. He admits that some party members needed persuading, and had their “reservations” about him representing the party in Bath: “I wanted to prove to them that I could be a candidate and I could do a good job.”

On the door step, constituents will occasionally comment on his youth, he tells me. But they don’t dismiss him as being “too young”.

Sceptics I have spoken to suggest that Labour fielding a teenager gives the impression that the party is not taking this seat seriously, but Middleton takes it very seriously indeed. He fiercely deflects the common criticism of politicians who have never had a “proper job” in their lives, or are too short of authentic experience to be in politics, by arguing parliament should represent young people.

“I certainly myself see it [my youth] as far more of an asset than a hindrance,” he asserts. “My overwhelming belief is that politics and parliament should be fully representative. I believe that when you look at parliament, you should see a cross-section of society, and that needs to include young people as well.

“Among other things, parliament at the moment is lacking young people. I’m not suggesting that I’m kind of the voice of young people, because I think it’s really important that young people have their own voice in politics, and that’s why we need to get more young people engaged in politics . . . So actually when I am knocking on people’s doors, particularly in student areas, I think a lot of people find it quite refreshing seeing a young face.”

The subject of young people being neglected by politicians is a poignant one, what with the tuition fees hike, Education Maintenance Allowance cut and youth unemployment being among this parliament’s darker characteristics. Plus young people are less likely to vote, meaning they are even less likely to appear urgently on our politicians’ radars with an election on the way.

Middleton, who was in the first year of students to be hit by the £9,000-a-year university fee, tells me he “would like to hear” something big from his party on higher education. Personally, he would be keen for Miliband to propose a graduate tax, and there have been whisperings recently that this will be Labour’s “radical offer” to future students ahead of May.

He is also concerned about his generation ending up as the first since World War II to be worse off than his parents’ generation. “I think that’s massive,” he says.

Middleton is certainly not one of the “disillusioned” young people we are always hearing about – “definitely not!” – but he is saddened by “the reality” that there are a lot of voters his age who are “not seeing politics as a vehicle for change”.

“One of the problems – and young people would be the first to admit this, by the way – is that a lot of young people actually really don't understand how our democracy works, how parliament works, and that, I believe, is down to the fact that we don't teach politics in schools. If it was up to me, we'd be teaching kids politics from secondary age onwards, as part of the curriculum. And I think that's vital; we're really neglecting our young people in not doing that.”

He believes the only way to achieve change is, “through engaging with the system, and that’s where I part ways with someone like Russell Brand”. He disagrees with the mouthy comedian-cum-campaigner’s public refusal to vote, but does call him, “quite a positive figure”.

“He's talking about inequality, for example. Inequality's a massive, massive issue that we're all facing in this country. In Bath, for example, one in five kids live in poverty . . . If nothing else, even perhaps for the wrong reasons, he has got young people talking about politics, and I think that's a really positive thing. But he's also got people more generally talking about a lot of these very important issues, like inequality, like housing.”

The average age in the House of Commons is currently 50. I wonder whether Middleton would enjoy working in parliament if he made it as the youngest MP. He chuckles. “I think so! But I’d like to think I wouldn't be the only young person for too long . . .”

 

Quickfire Q&A with Ollie Middleton:
 

Tweeting or debating?

Both. [laughs]
 

Soapbox or despatch box?

Ermmm. Soapbox. What do you mean by soapbox? So a bit of a Tony Benn? Or despatch box . . . I don't know. Erm. I don't think you see too many people on their soapboxes these days. I think both. I think we should use whatever means we have available to get out and reach people.
 

Russell Brand or Nigel Farage?

Definitely Russell Brand.
 

Squeezed Middle or Generation Rent?

Erm. Both are important, we need to be standing up for everyone, and that includes both the squeezed middle and of course generation rent as well. We need more houses, and we've said we'll build 200,000 a year, which is fantastic.
 

Clubbing or canvasing?

Am I allowed to say both again? Yeah.
 

One Nation or One Direction?

[Laughs] definitely One Nation!
 

Bath bun or bacon sandwich?

Bacon sandwich.
 

BBC Three or BBC Parliament?

[Long pause]. Well I think you can only watch BBC Three from 7 o’ clock or something, and most of the time I suppose I'm stuck with BBC Parliament in the day.
 

Royal Crescent or Full Moon party?

Ooh. I don't think there are many Full Moon parties in Bath, unfortunately. Maybe that's something we can do if I get elected. Full Moon party at the Royal Crescent!
 

Roman Bath or skipping a shower?

Roman Baths.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.