The candidates hoping to go straight from the classroom to Commons

A change in the law means that teenagers can now stand for Parliament. But will voters take a 19-year-old seriously,asks Toby Green
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Indy Politics

Chris Cassidy is not the only teenager out on the streets of Northern Moor, south Manchester, on a sunny Friday lunchtime, but he is the only one dressed in a suit and clutching leaflets declaring "Control our borders" and "Stop paying the EU £40m a day".

Crime and unemployment are big concerns for residents of the estates, portrayed unfavourably last year in the documentary, The Duchess on the Estate. And Mr Cassidy believes he can address their problems.

At just 19, he is among the youngest of the ambitious hopefuls taking advantage of the change in the law in 2006 which lowered the minimum age to be an MP, from 21 to 18. Ukip's youngest candidate, Mr Cassidy is trying to persuade the people of Wythenshawe and Sale East that he can represent them in Parliament.

Inspired by a Ukip election broadcast in 2005, he became a member aged 16 and decided to go a step further when he realised that no other candidate from the party would be standing in the area. "When I found out the rules had changed so you can be 18 and not 21 to stand, I thought, 'There is my chance'," he says. "No one else is going to do it, so let's go and represent Ukip and try to make a difference."

For local people, it is a refreshing change. "Political engagement among the youngsters around here is absolutely zero," says Bobby Azam, 29, who works in his family's shop beneath Mr Cassidy's campaign office. "They don't see any change coming for them, they've got no aspirations, they've got no anything, to be honest." Mr Azam is not planning on voting for Ukip (he tells Mr Cassidy their policies are "slightly – how do I put it without offending you? – fluctuating at the moment"), but Danny Peacock is. The 34-year-old owns a café a few doors down, and says the fact that Mr Cassidy is local is a big advantage, making it easier to talk to him. "He's always been there to help and he's always gone out of his way to help out," he says. "It's being able to have a direct conversation and getting answers back that you want to hear, so it's certainly a lot better."

Mr Cassidy believes Ukip "has always been regarded by a lot of people in the media as a right-wing party full of old Tories", but feels his age is important. "I am trying to push the image that no matter who you are, what age you are, what you believe in and what your background is, Ukip can really attract you."

Experience, or rather a lack of it, is the constant criticism levelled at young politicians. How can someone such as Mr Cassidy, not long out of school, have enough of it to become an effective MP? "A few people mention age, but I do have a standard response," he says, "which is that you don't need to have a degree in politics, you don't need to have 30 years in the public sector or working for a consultancy firm, as long as you believe in working for the local people, working for the constituency and doing the right thing."

Another candidate who hopes her age will not count against her is Emily Benn. A member of the political dynasty – Tony is her grandfather and Hilary her uncle, and her mother, Nita Clarke, advised Tony Blair in No 10 for six years – she has campaigned for Labour since the 1992 election ("not that I remember it") and applied to become the Labour candidate for East Worthing and Shoreham at just 17.

Ms Benn is now 20 and, out campaigning with her during a local market in Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, potential voters seem to be more preoccupied with her family connections than her age, although her youthfulness does not pass entirely without comment. "Oh, I do feel old," one pensioner says with a laugh, when Ms Benn tells her that Tony is her grandfather rather than her father. "Cameron for me is too young," the woman goes on, before realising her mistake. "Sorry, you're younger than Cameron."

Ms Benn believes that as the election draws nearer, her age has become less of an issue with voters. "I think people realise the situation is incredibly serious," she says. "We are at a crucial point of history about where our country is going to go, and my age has actually got nothing to do with that really."

But not every resident of Shoreham-by-Sea agrees. "I'd probably lean towards Labour, but the reason I'd lean towards Labour is because I think that experience is good given that we are in a difficult situation," says James Foottit, 31, who is walking through the town as the market draws to a close. "That wouldn't really fall true for Emily."

Young candidates cannot take the support of their peers for granted either. In 2005 only an estimated one in three of registered voters aged 18 to 24 voted in the general election, and the small proportion who do get actively involved in politics risk being stereotyped as (for want of a more polite word) abnormal.

One trying to change this perception is 25-year-old Michelle Donelan, a candidate for Wentworth and Dearne and a member of the national executive of Conservative Future, the Conservative Party's youth movement. " 'Tory Boy' is not in existence any more," she says, referring to Harry Enfield's comic creation. "Obviously, you get your peers who think it [young people in politics] is strange, but given the present climate more young people are talking about issues, they're talking about the economy, because they are finding it hard to get jobs after university."

Yet, with the batch of MPs elected in 2005 having an average age of just over 50 and only three being under 30 at the time, it is understandable why young people would be dissuaded from getting involved. And until they do, legislation that affects the lives of young people – on issues such as tuition fees and drugs – will continue to be passed by MPs with little or no first-hand experience of what they are discussing, something which is true even for some of the younger MPs. "I actually had very different experiences from younger people today," says the Liberal Democrats' Jo Swinson, who, until the election of Chloe Smith for the Conservatives in Norwich North last year, was the youngest MP. "I didn't have to pay tuition fees, for example; they came in the year after I went to university. I read about the stories of 'meow meow' [mephedrone] and that kind of stuff, and I think 'I haven't even heard of that'."

Now 30, Ms Swinson says she has faced a certain amount of ageism, not only when she was going for selection but also after election. "It is one of these types of discrimination that many people still feel is acceptable, unfortunately," she says. "It is also something I have experienced in the House, in a way that people make comments about your age that they would never dare make about somebody's gender or race."

In truth, Mr Cassidy and Ms Benn are most unlikely to be elected this time, given the large majorities they must overturn, but both hope it will be the first step to successful political careers. Ukip's Mr Cassidy doesn't see waiting until he is older as an option. "I can stand back and say 'Oh well I'll stand in 20 years', but the country is falling apart now," he says. "The EU is basically taking over all the member states in terms of legislation, and I need to stand now to try to make a difference. There is no point in me trying to get a good career if there isn't going to be a country at the end of it."

The young

Emily Benn, 20

Labour

East Worthing and Shoreham (held by the Conservatives, 8,183 votes ahead of Labour in 2005)

Just 17 when she applied to become a candidate, to be selected actually came as something of a shock to Ms Benn. "I thought it would be good experience to apply," she says, "and then I'd never hear from them again and I would go on with my A-Levels. But no, they had other ideas". Running her campaign whilst studying for a history degree at Oxford, she says: "I want to have the university experience, but this is the biggest responsibility of my life so this is my priority."

Matthew Butcher, 22

Green Party

Nottingham South (held by Labour, no Green candidate in 2005)

Became involved in politics aged 14, he says, when Labour "was making the disastrous decision to go to war with Iraq". The Nottingham University geography graduate says he is standing because he believes "this country needs something new". He says: "I am fully aware that I haven't got quite the same experience as some other candidates but I think I have attributes to offer that others can't."

Luke Wilkins, 18

Independent

Erewash (held by Labour)

Mr Wilkins, 18 at the end of March, has put his wages from working at McDonald's towards his campaign. He decided to run as an independent so he is "not tied down by any of the big political parties, and I can stand for Joe Average". Active in youth politics, and a student at Derby College's Joseph Wright Centre, he says his age "probably will put some voters off, but hopefully people can see past that".

Ruaraidh Dobson, 20

Liberal Democrats

Paisley and Renfrewshire North (held by Labour, 11,233 votes ahead of the Liberal Democrats in 2005)

The microbiology student at Glasgow University says he has always been "a political nerd" and became interested in the Liberal Democrats in their last leadership contest. "Seeking election was something I wanted to do," he says. "I thought it would be a really interesting experience." He says "getting young people involved in politics is always difficult".

Nick Varley, 20

Conservatives

City of Durham (held by Labour, who finished 16,749 votes ahead of the Conservatives in 2005)

A law student at Hull University, Mr Varley grew up in Durham. He says: "I am just as bothered about creating a good tax environment to create employment as I am about climate change and things like that." He claims no one told him he doesn't have the life experience to become an MP, but "whether that's because in Durham people are terribly polite I'm not sure." He adds: "If you've got the judgement, and the ability to get across your judgement, you are good enough to be an MP."

Chris Cassidy, 19

Ukip

Wythenshawe and Sale East (held by Labour, who finished 17,758 votes ahead of the Ukip candidate in 2005)

Inspired to join Ukip because of its anti-EU policies, Mr Cassidy found at school (Xaverian Sixth Form College) that not everyone shared his interests. "In high school, it was very funny because people were like, 'You should be out drinking and getting wasted'," he says. "They didn't like the idea that I was into politics." He is also a leading member of Ukip's youth wing, Young Independence, and works for Paul Nuttall MEP.

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