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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Stephen Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising space makes him almost as bad as Trump

The physicist's inistence on mankind's expansion risks making him a handmaiden of inequality.

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves,” Stephen Hawking has warned. And he’s not just talking about surviving the UK's recent run of record breaking heat. If humanity doesn’t start sending people to Mars soon, then in a few hundred years he says we can all expect to be kaput; there just isn’t enough space for us all.

The theoretical physicist gave his address to the glittering Starmus Festival of science and arts in Norway. According to the BBC, he argued that climate change and the depletion of natural resources help make space travel essential. With this in mind, he would like to see a mission to Mars by 2025 and a new lunar base within 30 years.

He even took a swipe at Donald Trump: “I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen.”

Yet there are striking similarities between Hawking's statement and the President's bombast. For one thing there was the context in which it was made - an address to a festival dripping with conspicuous consumption, where 18 carat gold OMEGA watches were dished out as prizes.

More importantly there's the inescapable reality that space colonisation is an inherently elitist affair: under Trump you may be able to pay your way out of earthly catastrophe, while for Elon Musk, brawn could be a deciding advantage, given he wants his early settlers on Mars to be able to dredge up buried ice.

Whichever way you divide it up, it is unlikely that everyone will be able to RightMove their way to a less crowded galaxy. Hell, most people can’t even make it to Starmus itself (€800  for a full price ticket), where the line-up of speakers is overwhelmingly white and male.

So while this obsession with space travel has a certain nobility, it also risks elevating earthly inequalities to an interplanetary scale.

And although Hawking is right to call out Trump on climate change, the concern that space travel diverts money from saving earth's ecosystems still stands. 

In a context where the American government is upping NASA’s budget for manned space flights at the same time as it cuts funds for critical work observing the changes on earth, it is imperative that the wider science community stands up against this worrying trend.

Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising the solar system risks playing into the hands of the those who share the President destructive views on the climate, at the expense of the planet underneath us.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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