Interview: Tom Bletsoe

Tom Bletsoe is the youngest councillor in Britain.
Tom Bletsoe is the youngest councillor in Britain.

By Hannah Brenton

Teenagers can be an elusive breed. Their adolescent waking hours naturally run later than the rest of the population so sightings can be limited or nocturnal. They can normally be found in the local pub or buried under mountains of A-level coursework - it is rather more unusual to find them running for election.

But that is precisely how 18-year-old Tom Bletsoe has spent the past two months.

Right in the middle of his first set of A-level exams, Tom decided to run for a spot on his town council in St Ives, Cambridgeshire. Standing as an independent, he romped home with 41% of the vote to win the seat, making him the youngest councillor in Britain.

Tom, or more precisely Tom's best friend Luke, has even written to the Guinness Book of Records to make it official.

The local schoolboy will sit on the council for 14 months as he fills out the term of resigning councillor Rosemary Paget-Crowe. He plans to take a gap year between school and university to take up the position. But why would this bright and well-informed youngster decide to spend his days locked in discussions about local woodlands and heritage buildings?

"At the beginning, all my friends thought I was mad or ridiculous. My closest friends thought I was barmy," Tom tells me.

He has been heavily involved in local community activities and takes an active role in the youth theatre - where he tells me he's played numerous dames. Last year, Tom was chair of St Ivo school's sixth form committee where he got involved in a variety of community outreach activities including charity dress-up days, gigs at charities and mentoring students in primary schools. He also works part-time at the local chippy.

"It's more the community involvement that made me want to do this, I enjoy feeling like I'm doing my bit," he says.

The 18-year-old's social life took a nose dive as he traipsed around his hometown campaigning for votes. He spent most of January canvassing, knocking on doors and generally trying to get his message across to the people of St Ives. Heavy nights out were off the cards - although he did still made it into the pub after a long day of campaigning.

"I knew I had to sacrifice one or two things. I knew it couldn't be school work, so sadly my social life was sacrificed throughout the campaign", he tells me.

"One of my best friends said he'd help out because he knew I'd said I wasn't coming out on Friday and Saturday nights. He knew the only way he would see me is to come round [canvassing] with me."

On the doorstep, Tom says many people were sceptical about his age. Town councils are typically dominated by pensioners willing to give back to the community in their retirement. There's a 53-year age difference between Tom and the oldest member of the council.

"There are benefits and negatives of being 18; they balance themselves out," he says. "Lots of people on the doorstep said 'I'm not voting for you because you're too young, how can you know anything about politics?'

"But counter to that younger people and their parents, who wouldn't normally vote for a by-election, I think did get out there. Some people especially thought it would be nice to have more diversity - to shake things up a bit."

Before running for the seat, Tom was not a politics buff. He helped out when his theatre director ran for a seat in parliament as an independent, but his interest in politics peaked fairly recently. Like many students it is largely thanks to Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.

Tom faces trebled university tuition fees and feels particularly put out by the Lib Dem leader's reversal of his election pledge to eliminate tuition fees entirely.

"After the election, came the student fee rise. I just thought: 'This is ridiculous'. My school was very involved in protests and some of the sit-ins in Cambridge.

"I think lots of students felt let down by Mr Clegg's pledge. There's been a lot of attention on national politics at a college.

"I will be affected by the tuition fee rise because I opted to take year out. If you do make a promise and invite loads of media coverage, then you should stick to it," he adds.

I ask Tom if there's a political leader in parliament he does admire: he can't think of one.

Now that he's won his seat, Tom is something of a local celebrity. His head of sixth form, Richard Perry, has played the video of Tom's recent interview on BBC Breakfast to all his classes.

"Words can't describe how happy [Mr Perry] is; he's a politics teacher and he's wanted younger people to get involved in the local community," says Tom. "He thought it was great when I decided to run. Now we email incessantly."

Tom still has to sit the remainder of his A-levels this summer, although he took some of his exams right before he started campaigning in January.

"I guess we'll see if the campaign had any affect when I get my results in March," he jokes.

The newly-elected councillor is studying biology, history and theatre studies - and is considering taking an AS-level in politics during his year out. He has yet to decide what to study at university, torn between the poles of theatre and history, but he's not ruling out a career in politics just yet.

"If I was to be an MP, I would probably have to side with a political party and I'm not ready to do that. It is a possibility depending on how the next few years go, or even the next decade."

He's got time left to make up his mind.


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