Ollie Middleton is the student running for Labour in Bath. Photo: Anoosh Chakelian
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May’s stage-managed election campaign keeps the public at bay

Jeremy Corbyn’s approach may be chaotic, but at least it’s more authentic.

The worst part about running an election campaign for a politician? Having to meet the general public. Those ordinary folk can be a tricky lot, with their lack of regard for being on-message, and their pesky real-life concerns.

But it looks like Theresa May has decided to avoid this inconvenience altogether during this snap general election campaign, as it turns out her visit to Leeds last night was so stage-managed that she barely had to face the public.

Accusations have been whizzing around online that at a campaign event at the Shine building in Leeds, the Prime Minister spoke to a room full of guests invited by the party, rather than local people or people who work in the building’s office space.

The Telegraph’s Chris Hope tweeted a picture of the room in which May was addressing her audience yesterday evening a little before 7pm. He pointed out that, being in Leeds, she was in “Labour territory”:

But a few locals who spied this picture online claimed that the audience did not look like who you’d expect to see congregated at Shine – a grade II-listed Victorian school that has been renovated into a community project housing office space and meeting rooms.

“Ask why she didn’t meet any of the people at the business who work in that beautiful building. Everyone there was an invite-only Tory,” tweeted Rik Kendell, a Leeds-based developer and designer who says he works in the Shine building. “She didn’t arrive until we’d all left for the day. Everyone in the building past 6pm was invite-only . . . They seemed to seek out the most clinical corner for their PR photos. Such a beautiful building to work in.”

Other tweeters also found the snapshot jarring:

Shine’s founders have pointed out that they didn’t host or invite Theresa May – rather the party hired out the space for a private event: “All visitors pay for meeting space in Shine and we do not seek out, bid for, or otherwise host any political parties,” wrote managing director Dawn O'Keefe. The guestlist was not down to Shine, but to the Tory party.

The audience consisted of journalists and around 150 Tory activists, according to the Guardian. This was instead of employees from the 16 offices housed in the building. I have asked the Conservative Party for clarification of who was in the audience and whether it was invite-only and am awaiting its response.

Jeremy Corbyn accused May of “hiding from the public”, and local Labour MP Richard Burgon commented that, “like a medieval monarch, she simply briefly relocated her travelling court of admirers to town and then moved on without so much as a nod to the people she considers to be her lowly subjects”.

But it doesn’t look like the Tories’ painstaking stage-management is a fool-proof plan. Having uniform audiences of the party faithful on the campaign trail seems to be confusing the Prime Minister somewhat. During a visit to a (rather sparsely populated) factory in Clay Cross, Derbyshire, yesterday, she appeared to forget where exactly on the campaign trail she was:

The management of Corbyn’s campaign has also resulted in gaffes – but for opposite reasons. A slightly more chaotic approach has led to him facing the wrong way, with his back to the cameras.

Corbyn’s blunder is born out of his instinct to address the crowd rather than the cameras – May’s problem is the other way round. Both, however, seem far more comfortable talking to the party faithful, even if they are venturing out of safe seat territory.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496