In the third candidate hustings of the election season, the Labour candidate for Bath, Ollie Middleton, faced the student body on issues ranging from housing to bacon sarnies. In what was a sometimes hostile audience, Ollie shone as a composed, able, but by-the-books, public speaker.
Ollie used his five minute introduction more effectively than the Green and UKIP candidates, presenting a coherent vision as to why students should back a Labour government. Most importantly, as a student himself, Ollie knew his audience; “young people have been hit so hard by the current Government,” he told the crowd, referencing tuition fees, the eradication of education maintenance allowance amongst some of the detrimental policies passed in the last five years.
Beyond the first five minutes however, Ollie returned to the safety of Labour’s national manifesto. On economics, the soundbites rolled off his tongue with some ease and even passion. He offered more established policy than the first two candidates, fiercely defending them when criticised by members of the audience. When asked on the difference between Conservative and Labour economic policy, he claimed “the difference between the two parties is that the Tories want to send spending back to the level of the 1930s”.
It was economics and, naturally, Ed Miliband’s leadership credentials that occupied the bulk of the evening. The minimum wage would be increased to £8.00 under Labour, tuition fees decreased to £6,000, and the 10p tax bracket reinstalled. If Ollie was there to defend Labour, he did a sterling job. But, as ever with such specific policy, the audience either agreed or condemned the ideas, few ‘undecided’ voters would have left with overwhelming conviction that Labour were the right party to lead the country.
Locally, however, Labour would cap unfair rent increases and force those holding onto ‘brownfield’ sites to sell their properties, allowing for more land to build in an increasingly expensive city. There was even a new policy unveiled on the quality of local student property: the University should be charged with ensuring buildings are maintained properly.
Away from policy, hustings present an opportunities for the ‘don’t knows’ to form an opinion on whether each candidate is able to represent their voice in Bath. On this, Ollie might seem like the best choice. At the age of nineteen, Ollie is a student, born and raised in Bath. He emphasised his experience from a low-income family who has been impacted by a number of local issues as vital for representing young people both locally and nationally. “Life experience is not all about having had jobs in the private sector, but about representing the different levels of society which exist,” he said.
But the ‘party-line’ might represent a barrier for students attempting to connect with the candidate. On issues which allowed for small, personal opinions, Ollie failed differentiate himself from the Labour policy-machine. On drug policy, Trident missile defence and civil liberties, Ollie remained firmly within the boundaries of sound bites and catchphrases; a clear flaw when claiming to represent the student body.
This could be Ollie’s largest mistake. At one point he claimed “Young people aren’t apathetic, but connection is lost between their opinion and political parties”. It is unlikely that standing so firmly on the party line will do much to rebind that connection. Equally, however, Ollie came across as the most competent candidate so far. Anyone who shares Labour’s core values will have left the room, confident that he will represent those well.