Alex Wagner is running as a Lib Dem candidate in Stafford
Harrison Kelly meets some of the teenagers hoping to be elected on Thursday and finds out what motivated them to throw their hats into the ring in the most important General Election for a generation.
“Sorry, I’m currently doing my A-levels, so haven’t got much time for media.” That may not be the ordinary response to expect while trying to interview a parliamentary candidate. However, by all accounts, this is not an ordinary General Election.
When the UK goes to the polls on Thursday, there will be at least 13 candidates who will be under the age of 20 listed on ballot papers. If any of them are successful, they would become Britain’s first teenage Member of Parliament since the Reform Act of 1832 stopped minors from running.
Of the teenage candidates standing this year, an unprecedented 10 are being fielded by major UK political parties, with the notable exception being the Conservative Party – although this is perhaps unsurprising, since Tory voters are traditionally much older.
So, why are so many young people running in the 2019 General Election?
Mary Kate Ross, 19: Running for Labour in Stirling
“On the night I decided to run, I was actually with my friends in McDonald’s on Halloween,” recalled 19-year-old student Mary Kate Ross. “They know I have strong political opinions, and Stirling didn’t have a Labour candidate, so they persuaded me to apply. The party picked me from a shortlist.”
Stirling is a key marginal between the Scottish National Party and Scottish Conservatives this year, but it was a Labour seat until as recently as 2015. “Both SNP and the Tories are being quite bullish about having Stirling in the bag,” Ross told me on the first week of her campaign.
In person, voters are taken aback by Ross’ age, although she thinks she’s persuaded some. On Twitter, she received nasty comments, so set up separate accounts for her candidacy. She was also on the receiving end of a dirty tricks campaign. “The Conservatives sent out a misleading leaflet in our colours so it looked like Labour endorsed their candidate in Stirling,” she told me despairingly.
Now in the final week of the election, Ross has a cold from Winter campaigning and worries that there has been insufficient time to build momentum. “The social media never really got off the ground,” she admitted. “But the meme page my friends made is getting me through.”
The realisation that Labour might not win here has been pretty demoralising. The party has made clear that it has to prioritise allocating resources to marginal constituencies, but Ross is putting herself under a lot of stress. “Every minute we’re not knocking doors I feel guilty,” she said.
Although her decision to stand may have been relatively impulsive, Ross hopes to be taken seriously as someone trying to improve the area she lives in.
Alex Wagner, 18: Running for the Liberal Democrats in Stafford
Alex Wagner had already been a Liberal Democrat activist for years before the party selected him as its candidate in Stafford aged just 18 – one of four teenage Lib Dem candidates.
“You don’t pick a seat, you apply for approval,” Wagner explained. “Then you are offered a constituency.” The process involves training days, policy briefings and media coaching.
His campaign team estimates that they knocked on approximately 1,500 doors in just the first two weeks of campaigning. “We go doorstepping in the suburbs, where you meet people you wouldn’t otherwise,” Wagner told me. Apparently, his “Stop Brexit” message gets a great reception on doorsteps, once voters overcome his age.
Wagner no longer believes that the Lib Dems will win this election, but thinks the party can prevent Boris Johnson from getting a majority. “If you look at the 100 or so seats we’ve got a realistic prospective in, a lot of them are Tory seats that voted to stay in the European Union,” he said.
Asked why he thinks this General Election in particular is bringing so many young people into politics, Wagner responded without hesitation: “Brexit.” He was too young to vote in the 2016 EU Referendum (although he campaigned for Remain), but voted in the European Parliament elections earlier this year, for the Lib Dems.
“We are the only vote which is unequivocally against Brexit. That’s why it’s important for me to run this time.”
Cameron Edwards, 18: Running for the Brexit Party in Newport West
Brexit is also a primary motivator for 18-year-old Cameron Edwards, the Brexit Party candidate for Newport West.
This Labour-held Welsh constituency voted to Leave the European Union by 53% in the 2016 Referendum. Many locals have informed Edwards that they want to support him, but the race between Labour and the Conservatives is close and many won’t risk jeopardising the pro-Brexit vote. Nonetheless, Edwards is adamant that Newport West is a “three-horse race”.
Asked about the Tories, he insisted: “We’re nothing like them apart from wanting to get Brexit done… If anything, they are splitting our vote.”
Formerly a Conservative Party activist, Edwards jumped ship after Boris Johnson became leader. He does not believe the Prime Minister can be trusted and is critical of his Brexit withdrawal agreement. “Johnson’s deal is exactly the same as Theresa May’s deal but worse,” he told me. “He put a border in the Irish Sea and made Northern Ireland into a puppet of the EU.”
Edwards is one of the only non-students amongst the teenage candidates, having abandoned university to start his own aerospace company. But, running for office has long been his ambition. He said that his “business is on hold for a few weeks” and that “sitting in Parliament would be a massive privilege, I’d love to represent the people of Wales”.
The Brexit Party previously boasted another teenager in its ranks, but 19-year-old Darcy Iveson-Berkeley in Southport was among 317 candidates pulled from Tory-held seats by party leader Nigel Farage.
Edwards accepts Farage’s decision to do so, but feels that the Conservatives have not reciprocated. “The arrogance of the Tories is absolutely shocking,” he told me. “They don’t realise that, if we didn’t stand down candidates, they would have lost in nearly every seat.”
He said he has received Facebook messages from local Conservative Party members urging him to stand down and claimed that such ageism makes him glad to have left them behind.
Paris Hayes, 18: Running for the Green Party in Bolton West
Brexit is rather lower down the priorities list for Paris Hayes, Green Party candidate in Bolton West. If anything, the 18-year-old believes that it’s a distraction. “I don’t think Brexit is an issue like poverty, NHS or transport that people are personally suffering each day,” he said.
The Greens boast four teenage candidates this election. Hayes thinks the reason so many youngsters are standing is that “the current people in politics are failing to do their job”. He said “the climate crisis has been ignored and pushed to the side whilst the issue of a never-ending Brexit dominates”.
Bolton West is a tight marginal seat, with the Tories beating Labour by just 1.83% of the vote in the 2017 General Election. However, Hayes wants the Greens to be more than a protest vote.
“I personally would have struggled to vote if a Green was not on the ballot paper and I am not the only one who feels like this,” he explained. “On the whole, people have welcomed me as the candidate that is different and has something different to offer.”
Hannah Locke, 18: Running as an Independent in Shrewsbury and Atcham
Outside of party politics, almost anyone can put themselves forward to stand for election, provided they pay a £500 deposit, which is returned if they achieve 5% of vote. Hannah Locke is one of at least three such independent teenage candidates this year.
Aged 18, Locke is too young to have voted previously and is exercising her right to stand in Shrewsbury and Atcham after being disheartened by the candidates on offer. She particularly wanted to give incumbent MP Daniel Kawczynski – who has held the seat since 2005 – a run for his money.
“Shrewsbury is known as being a safe seat for the Conservatives and I think he has got quite complacent,” Locke told me. “A party has a general set of politics people can broadly agree with, but MPs get too wrapped up thinking about party lines, rather than what’s best for everyone else.”
Whatever the result, running for office has been a refreshing experience for Locke: “It’s made me realise that I can make a difference. Even if I’m not an MP, I’m going to keep campaigning for issues I care about in the future.”
It is impossible to say whether Locke or any of the teenage candidates have a serious chance of actually winning. Nor does it necessarily follow that, if there are more young candidates, more young voters will turnout on 12 December. However, Locke’s antipathy towards Brexit, concern for the environment and disillusion with the major parties all reflect the views of lots of young people in this country.
What national result is the young independent candidate anticipating on Friday? “I just hope that, whoever the MPs are, we’ll be able to trust them more.”