Palatinate talks to 18-year-old Solomon Curtis, the youngest candidate standing for Parliament

By Oliver Mawhinney

solomon

As exams approach, the spring months are one of the busiest times of the year for students across the country. However, spare a thought for 18-year-old Solomon Curtis, who is running for the Labour Party in the East Sussex constituency of Wealden as the youngest Parliamentary candidate, alongside studying a Politics degree at the University of Sussex.

Curtis, who also runs a marketing consultancy firm supporting local authorities in marketing to younger audiences, identifies two support mechanisms to managing his formidable workload: “I’m lucky that I can operate with very little sleep so that I get a lot more hours in the day than a lot of people do, and I’m lucky that I’ve got a university which is extremely supportive.

“I’ll be honest that maybe my attendance isn’t exactly up to scratch but I’m putting in as much of my energy as possible into Wealden.”

In the Wealden constituency lies the safest Conservative seat in the country, with a 17,000 majority recorded in the 2010 General Election.

However, Curtis remains optimistic that he can inflict real change in this region of East Sussex: “I hope to do really well. If I don’t believe that I can win then why should people vote for you?

“I believe we can do something very special and if we can do another ‘Portillo moment’ then who knows. But if that isn’t to happen I think we have a really good chance of becoming a really strong opposition to the Tories and I hope that quite soon it won’t be their constituency any longer.”

The lack of life experience outside of politics is often a criticism levied at Members of Parliament and prospective Parliamentary candidates.

“If I don’t believe that I can win then why should people vote for you?”

Curtis admits “I actually expected it but it hasn’t come up. It genuinely has been a good response, people have been positive about it.

“It depends how you define life experience: we’ve got a Conservative candidate in the area who is from Birmingham, has never really been to Wealden before she was selected, has no experience of the area, yet claims to have life experience because she worked for the BBC and for a bank.”

In comparison, Curtis posits himself as “someone who grew up in the area, had to rely on public transport to get to school, rely on the trains to work in London, someone who runs a small business in the area.

“I think that’s much more relevant life experience than any of the other candidates. I think put into context it is more about the relevance [of experience] rather than the quantity.”

It is consensual among many that Parliament desperately needs greater representation of young people – indeed the youngest Member of Parliament, Pamela Nash, is 30 years old. However, a ‘Catch 22’ dilemma often arises, with some criticising the integrity of the experience of young people to enter Parliament.

Consequently this is a context in which Curtis’ campaign appears to thrive upon: “I think it’s really exciting because we’ve got a situation where there are no MPs aged between 18 to 25 and a real under-representation of a really important part of the electorate, and part of the electorate that isn’t voting.

“I think one of the reasons why 18 to 25-year-olds aren’t voting is because politics isn’t relevant to them, so to be able to actually give my age group a voice and bring politics to their relevance is really important.”

“I think one of the reasons why 18 to 25-year-olds aren’t voting is because politics isn’t relevant to them.

As part of his lengthy campaign, Curtis participated in his first hustings recently, of which he described receiving a very positive response: “People were enthused by the idea that there might be a candidate who is forward-thinking, modern, young, and has got the energy, determination and ideas. I think people want something fresh in politics.”

While electoral polls indicate that the Wealden constituency is likely to be a battle too far for the Labour Party, Curtis remains optimistic regarding the wider election result: “I think we [Labour] are gaining the momentum now and winning the argument.

“Ed Miliband’s popularity is rising because people are changing their perception; once upon a time there was this perception that Prime Ministers had to be strong and masculine and all of these ideas which I think are so pre-historic.

“What I see in Ed is a very honest person which I think is far more credible for someone to be Prime Minister than someone who is very strong at standing up to the weak like David Cameron.

“I think Ed is winning the argument; you’ve just got to look at the recent policy announcements – the fact that we said we’re going to end the non-dom status and that’s really popular with people. Yet the fact that the Conservatives are still trying to defend that really disgraceful form of tax avoidance shows just how out of touch they are with people.

“We have over 700 food banks, we’ve got people earning below the minimum wage, we’ve got the largest amount of in-work poverty we’ve ever seen. There’s a real injustice people are facing and I honestly believe we can end it.”

Conversely, a considerable portion of the so-called ‘Green Surge’, which saw Green Party membership exponentially rise to above that of the Liberal Democracts to over 59,000 members, has been accomplished through defectors from the Labour Party, and in particular those aged between 18 to 24.

However, Curtis remains adamant that the Labour Party remain the most viable party for young people: “The Greens can promise the world because they don’t have the same scrutiny that we do. They are not going to get into government and will never be able to implement these things.

“The polls are showing that Labour are still the biggest party among young people. I think some have been leaning towards the Greens which I understand because they are quite an attractive offer.

“But I think when it comes to the next five years and the way we shape our country, I do honestly believe in Labour’s vision, and people need to decide if we continue five years of David Cameron and Nick Clegg or whether we actually tackle the structural inequalities and unfairness that we have in our society.

“An £8 minimum wage, getting rid of exploitative zero-hour contracts, caps and legislating on the rental market – these are all things that will make a big difference to young people and the cost of living; these are things that can actually happen.

“A lot of people say to me ‘I believe in 80% of what Labour believes in and 90% of what the Greens believe in’. Well, I’d rather have 80% of what I believe implemented than 0% of what I believe implemented, which is the choice between the Greens and Labour.”

One of the flagship policies of the Labour Party has been the pledge to lower tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 per year. Yet tuition fees were priced at only £3,000 per year when Labour were last in government five years ago, thus the policy has been criticised by some as an election gimmick that will continue to saddle students with debt.

“I actually believe in free education; a lot of Labour party candidates do and I think we’ll get to a stage in the future where we do reach that.”

“If it is an election gimmick I don’t really care because I think it will make a big difference to young people. It shows the values that the Labour Party has – that although we’ve got tough economic times, the Labour Party is showing we’ve listened to you.”

“This is going to be the first step. Ed Miliband hasn’t said this is the end policy; we’ll lower it to £6,000 straightaway and then we’ll try to decrease it further.

“I actually believe in free education; a lot of Labour party candidates do and I think we’ll get to a stage in the future where we do reach that.

“It’s a choice between whether people want the £9,000 a year tuition fees or the £6,000 tuition fees Labour are offering now.

“We’re also going to increase maintenance grants which I think will make a great difference, which I think hasn’t been talked about enough.

Curtis fails to commit to whether he believes Labour will obtain enough seats to form a majority government, but does foreshadow that “we’re on track to be the largest party”. Labour have never won in Curtis’ Wealden constituency and the combination of history and polls suggests that it is unlikely that Labour will finally be able to defeat the Conservatives in East Sussex. However, while in conversation with Curtis his infectious optimism generates a belief that the greatest of electoral coups could happen. Thus it appears that the most effective way of engaging young people in politics and democracy is through providing young people such as Solomon with the platform to represent people.

Photograph: Solomon Curtis

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