When talking about political engagement, the stereotype of the apathetic 18-24 year old is often mentioned. As an age group, we are less likely to be a member of a political party, less likely to vote in elections, and are less likely to even be registered to vote. Academics and politicians have cited various reasons for this, ranging from simple disinterest in politics to a total lack of trust in politicians and the system.
So, earlier this week when I read this article in The Guardian, written by 19-year-old Ollie Middleton who will be standing for election in May, it immediately struck a chord. A teenager so interested in politics and so involved in the Labour party that he had decided to stand for election? Even among my friends, who are unusually politically active for the 18-24 bracket, that would be considered unusual.
Ollie Middleton is hoping to be an MP for the same reason as many other candidates: he wants to change the current system. But will anyone really vote for someone so young?
The argument goes that people get wiser with age. And being wise is exactly the trait we'd want for someone running the country, whose every decision might impact upon our lives somehow. A teenager cannot possibly have enough life experience to truly understand what people, the citizens, need from their politicians. Those are probably the first thoughts that run through your head when you first hear about Ollie. I have to admit, when I realised he was 19 I had much to same idea.
But then, I sat and thought about it for a while. Isn't one of our most common complaints about those currently filling the benches of Westminster that they are out of touch with reality? Many of them went to public school, then on to Oxbridge, and then perhaps sort-of lived a real life in the sort-of real world (likely shaded by some family member's wing), before deciding they knew what would be best for the public.
This situation is about as far removed from many of our own lives as we can get. How, then, are current MPs any more qualified to tell us what is good for us than Ollie? In this respect, Ollie has no less life experience than any of those we already trust with our present and our futures.
Instead, what Ollie has to offer - other than the ability to represent the youth perspective, as he argues in his article - is the political idealism that comes with being young. I'm only too aware that some of my own perspectives on politics could be considered fanciful idealism, based on how I feel the world should be. But doesn't this make for a better starting point in political debate than a more gritty, pessimistic attitude that we might expect to succumb to as we age? Many call this realism, but really it's just an excuse to not hope for better. I would much rather try to create the ideal world and work backwards from there.
What we can expect from young politicians such as Ollie is a renewal of politics. Not only could he engage the distant 18-24 year old by highlighting that politics isn't just for the old and 'experienced', not only could he give young people a voice, but he could put hope back on the agenda. Young politicians can push the boundaries in a way that older politicians are perhaps less likely to do, being too convinced that things have to be a certain way.
I am not, of course, arguing that MPs should be exclusively young. What we need is a variety of ages who can represent the different needs of the population, in much the same way as a variety of races, genders, sexualities, etc should also be represented. Young MPs could suggest radical changes, and older MPs would balance this out with their 'realism'. Decisions would hopefully land somewhere in the middle, providing a much needed change to the political landscape without disrupting other processes too much.
Whilst I am aware that the addition of one young MP is unlikely to cause massive waves at Westminster, I can hope that it sparks more interest for young people (including those under 18) to get involved in the political process. In a few elections' time, we could be looking at a completely changed landscape, the architects of which could be a mixture of ages.
By encouraging young people to make their voice heard, we can not only improve political engagement and activity, but harness their hope and idealism to make real change possible. For this reason, and many others, I wish Ollie Middleton every luck in his campaign.