The word “politician” is rarely associated with anyone below the age of 30. The average age of MPs in this cycle is nearer 50 than 15. This year, parties have sensed a mix of apathy and revolution in the air. The new faces of UKIP, Greens and the Liberal Democrats are new faces in their own right, determined to remind young voters that they have more in common with politicians than they believe.
Enter Joe Jenkins, the 21 year-old politics student at the University of Dundee. He’s been parachuted into Sheffield to campaign for Hallam, the seat held by Nick Clegg, on behalf of the UK Independence Party. The pint-wielding, rugby-loving student advocates immigration crackdowns alongside free tuition fees and legalised cannabis.
Young candidates in general elections aren’t a new phenomenon. In 2010, Emily Benn was selected to be Labour’s candidate for East Worthing and Shoreham at the tender age of 17. But this year, fringe and opposition parties are dropping eager young career politicians into seats to raise profiles and offer exciting alternatives to mainstream politics.
The candidates database Your Next MP estimates that 88 candidates up for election this year are below the age of 25. 10 were barely starting school when the World Trade Center was attacked, and many more saw the results of the last election before their 13th birthdays.
Jenkins, who before coming to UKIP was a member of his university’s Liberal Democrat Society, spoke a great deal about betrayal; something that resonates very strongly with student voters. Even more so in Sheffield, where five years ago students queued for hours to vote for their champion Nick Clegg.
“I never forgave Nick Clegg for going back on his promise. As a Lib Dem councillor I felt personally betrayed and embarrassed because I was telling all my friends and family to vote. Since then, UKIP has been the party for me.”
Young candidates like Jenkins have more to bring to the campaign than their common hatred of the coalition. Of the 32 candidates representing newly-formed Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol (CISTA), three are under 23. Even UKIP’s Jenkins was in full support of legalising the class B drug:
“Instead of the current situation, there could be businesses and taxes which could benefit from the selling of marijuana, and a small economy could be based on the drug.”
“Obviously that’s not UKIP policy so it’s not something I’d include as part of my own personal manifesto, but I’ll happily come out and say that’s what I believe.
Joe was keen to show what he and younger members of his campaign team were doing for UKIP’s social media presence locally. There is a definite divide between the older generation of leafleting campaigners and the newer, younger fans of social media.
“It sounds lazy but you reach far more people on things like Twitter than you do in the street.”
When asked what they thought the 21 year-old politics students could bring to the party in Hallam John Lowcock, chair of UKIP Sheffield, simply replied with “the face”.
Jenkins and his team were fully aware of why he’d been parachuted into the constituency. He was a big personality in a high-profile seat that he’s unlikely to win. Sheffield Hallam is being tipped as one of that could swing the election as Lord Ashcroft polling shows support has gone to Labour by a swing of nearly 20%. UKIP holds just 7% of the voting intention in the area.
How does Joe Jenkins fancy his chances as Sheffield Hallam’s next MP? “If I’m honest, I don’t think we’re likely to win this year but that’s not the point. It’s about raising our profile.”
Right now Sheffield is full of students running for seats in the 2015 general election. Thom Brown, another 20 year-old politics student, will be running for the very new Above and Beyond party, formerly known as None of the Above. His course-mate at the University Sheffield, Drew Carswell, 19, is running for the same party in his hometown of Cheadle.
Carswell, who was on his way to a hustings in his home constituency, was confident that being the youngest candidate in Cheadle by a wide margin was his biggest strength.
“I think I will be able to represent members of my constituency that usually feel like politicians don’t speak for them.”
Above and Beyond, founded during the 2010 general elections, campaigns on a single issue – to introduce a “none of the above” option on ballot papers. Ask any young candidate why they think this is important and they all have share one grievance:
“There is a sense of betrayal amongst students with regards to the Lib Dem’s policy on tuition fees”, explains Carswell. “We’re targeting those disenfranchised people who don’t usually vote.”
The majority of young candidates are representing the Green Party, and with nearly 20% of their votes coming from 18-24 year-olds in 2010 it’s not hard to see why. The Green party offers an alternative to mainstream politics with liberal policies that reflect student concerns. Meanwhile in Scotland SNP candidate Mhairi Black, 20, is poised to become Parliament’s youngest member with an 8% majority in the Lord Ashcroft polls.
On the other hand, Clegg’s party will not let go of the student vote without a fight. At 19 The Liberal Democrats have the second highest number of candidates under 25, standing for election in attainable seats all over the country from Lewes to Liverpool. With Clegg avoiding hustings in his own constituency and sending student councillors to fight on his behalf, it is clear that the party wants to put water under the bridge with the student vote.
With so many young politicians standing in swing constituencies this year, desperation for the student vote has never been more apparent. Let’s just hope that the strength of that desperation doesn’t put them off.