Baby-Faced But Ready For Parliament: The Gen Z Candidates On The Campaign Trail This Election

“If life experience was the qualifier to get into parliament, then we wouldn’t have the prime minister we have."

Who do you imagine when you picture an MP? A balding, bespectacled man in a suit, rifling through papers at his desk in Westminster? A middle-aged woman with a power-bob giving an impassioned speech on the floor of the House? A sea of grey suits jeering as Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn face off at PMQs?

Whatever you’re thinking of, it almost certainly isn’t someone in their teens or early 20s. In the 2017 election, the average age of MPs voted into parliament was 50.

But as Britain gears up for December’s general election, candidates who weren’t even born at the turn of the century are out pounding the pavement for their parties, asking constituents for their backing at the ballot box.

So who are these aspiring young MPs, some of whom weren’t old enough to vote during the last election? Why are they putting themselves forward at one of the most politically tumultuous times in our history? And what is it like on the campaign trail when you’re young enough to be the child – or even the grandchild – of your opponents?

Labour's candidate for Stirling is 19-year-old Mary Kate Ross
Labour's candidate for Stirling is 19-year-old Mary Kate Ross

In many ways, 19-year-old Mary Kate Ross is a typical student. A second year studying history and politics at the University of Stirling, she’s in Greggs with her friends buying a sausage roll when we first speak.

But unlike her classmates poring over books in the library, Mary Kate has taken a more practical approach to her politics course – by standing for the Labour Party in the Scottish city. (She’s hoping this is a good enough excuse to get an extension for her looming coursework deadlines.)

Top of her agenda if she’s elected? Improving conditions for students, young people and workers in her area.

“For me, what is really important is the banning of zero-hour contracts,” says Mary Kate – who has a part-time zero-hours job as a waitress. “So it would mean a lot to me and mean a lot to other students like me who are constantly having to work but have so much uncertainty about it.”

Mary Kate’s friends were the ones who encouraged her to run, and they now campaign for her at student house parties. The incumbent Tory candidate is Stephen Kerr. She’s 40 years his junior.

“I wanted to stand at a young age because I’ve been inspired by my friends who encouraged me along the way at university,” she says. “And because I want to fully represent the constituents of Stirling, who have clearly been let down before.”

Thomas Kerr, a Tory Glasgow City councillor and one of the party’s youngest general election candidates, hasn’t enjoyed *quite* the same level of support from his friends and family as Mary Kate.

He’s standing in Glasgow East for a second time, having failed to win the seat in 2017.

Thomas Kerr, 23, says his friends think is 'mad' for running to become an MP in his twenties
Thomas Kerr, 23, says his friends think is 'mad' for running to become an MP in his twenties

“Honestly, they think I’m mad,” the 23-year-old jokes. “They don’t get why I would put myself through the early morning leaflet drops or Saturday canvass sessions.”

But despite having already received abuse online – an issue increasingly faced by MPs – Thomas says there is a “bigger goal” that is driving him during this election campaign.

“The amount of comments I’ve had on my appearance and weight, for example, are really personal and that can make it really difficult,” he says. “But for every nasty tweet, there is a piece of casework or someone’s life I can make better”.

“That’s the reason I got involved in politics – to make a difference for my community and make people’s lives better.”

For other candidates still young enough to be asked for ID when ordering a pint after an evening of campaigning, it’s Brexit – an issue that has dominated their adolescence – that has motivated them to add their name to the ballot paper.

“A year ago, I would never have expected to do this,” says 23-year-old Inaya Folarin Iman, the youngest candidate for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

Despite not having voted in the 2016 EU referendum, when she was living in Morocco, Inaya says she was attracted to the Brexit Party after its success in the European elections in May. It gained 29 seats – more than double the combined number won by Labour and the Tories.

Inaya Folarin Iman is the Brexit Party's youngest candidate
Inaya Folarin Iman is the Brexit Party's youngest candidate

“It was a clear demonstration that the desire to leave the European Union and still have Brexit was as passionate as ever,” the project manager says. “It was contrary to what I was being told at uni – that people no longer wanted to leave and that the country had changed its mind.”

Having graduated with a degree in Arabic and international relations from Leeds University this summer, she is now standing in Leeds North East – a Labour safe seat that voted overwhelmingly to Remain in the EU referendum.

So why bother putting yourself through weeks of campaigning in the freezing cold when you’re so unlikely to win?

“The Brexit Party mantra is to change politics for good,” Inaya says. “I could look at that [constituency profile] and go: ‘I won’t win that, I’ll never do that, no-one is going to listen to me.’

“And then the people in that seat wouldn’t have the option to hear another perspective. For me, that’s not democracy.”

She continues: “I think part of Brexit is challenging fundamentally the narrative of a safe seat, of this narrative that you don’t have to do anything to represent people – that if you’re this party, you’re destined to govern there.”

The response she has had on the doorstep has been “overwhelmingly positive”, she says. “I’ve even had Remain voters who have said they would consider voting for me because I’m not here to perpetuate more of the same.”

But away from the politics they’re peddling, what kind of reaction do these fresh-faced candidates get on the doorstep? How do constituents react when they see someone closer to collecting their A-level results than their pension offering to represent them in Westminster?

Alex Wagner, who is just 18, is standing for the Lib Dems in a seat held by the Torys since 2010
Alex Wagner, who is just 18, is standing for the Lib Dems in a seat held by the Torys since 2010

“I’ve knocked on a good few hundred doors now and I’ve had plenty of people who have reacted fairly negatively,” says 18-year-old Lib Dem candidate Alex Wagner. “Though there have been plenty of people who have reacted quite the opposite.”

Born in March 2001, Alex says he understands why some people have been shocked by the fact he’s in the race to become MP for Stafford, a seat held by the Tories for nine years.

“It isn’t common and it isn’t something our political system is very used to,” he admits. “Thrusting that on people in an area that hasn’t been a hotly-contested seat in the past, I don’t blame people for being a bit surprised.”

But what does the teenager – who has filled his mum and dad’s living room with campaign leaflets – say to the critics who go one step further, telling him hasn’t got enough life experience to sit in the House of Commons?

“The average age of parliament at the moment is 50 and they haven’t done an especially good job with an awful lot of life experience,” says Alex, who has been a Lib Dem campaigner since leaving school this summer. “So, perhaps it’s time for a change.

“And, as I always say, I’m doing literally everything in my power to grow older.”

It’s a view echoed by the SNP’s Mhairi Black, the current holder of the title ‘Baby of the House’ and the party’s youngest candidate in the upcoming election. (“Regardless of whether I hold the title or not, I will be forever known as ‘that wee lassie from Scotland,’” she tells me.)

When she was elected to parliament back in 2015 – pulling the rug from beneath shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander in the process – she was just 20, making her the youngest MP since at least 1832.

SNP candidate and 'Baby of the House' Mhairi Black
SNP candidate and 'Baby of the House' Mhairi Black
AFP Contributor via Getty Images

“If life experience was the qualifier to get into parliament, then we wouldn’t have the prime minister we have,” she says.

“And ultimately, if you want a parliament that will be able to change society, you’ve got to have a parliament that reflects it.”

She may have celebrated five birthdays since she first took her seat representing Paisley and Renfrewshire South, but Mhairi still finds herself patronised in parliament.

“I do still get some of it,” she says. “It’s more that I can tell that people don’t like the fact I’m capable and that I challenge them – they don’t like the fact it’s a young person doing it.”

So what is her advice to the country’s youngest prospective MPs, some of them a full seven years younger than parliament’s current ‘baby’?

“Have confidence in yourself,” she says. “If you put the work in and think: ‘I’m here for genuine reasons.’ then you should have confidence in your own ability.”

But a healthy dose of reality is not a bad thing to keep hold of either, she says.

“Although I was elected and capable and believed that I could do everything, I was also aware that I was a 20-year-old in a parliament filled with ‘real adults’ – not folk who are almost freshly-baked out of the high school oven,” she laughs.

While politics continues to go in a “very scary direction”, it is vital that young people continue to put themselves forward, Mhairi adds.

“When politics is so chaotic and volatile just now, one of the ways we bring together is by making sure that every different group has a voice and everyone’s included,” she says.

“The only way to make that happen is to actually get some young folk into parliament, which is supposed to represent everybody.”


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