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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.