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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.