Sorry, that was Downing Street on the phone.” This remark by Ben Howlett, the Conservative Party’s parliamentary candidate for Bath, would usually signify a sense of entitlement and of condescension. My presumption was soon dispelled, however, as quickly as it was formed. Ben defies many stereotypes of a Conservative candidate; openly homosexual and embracing his dyslexia from childbirth, he quashes fears of a stiff-neck PPE Oxford alumnus fighting for the constituency. After working on a minimum-wage job for 18 months once he graduated from university, Ben received funding to start a lucrative NHS consultancy firm in London. He then turned his focus to politics where he became the National Chairman of Conservative Future in 2010 and was chosen by local residents in 2013 to contest the seat ahead of two other local candidates.
What Ben lacks in not being born-and-bred in Bath, he certainly compensates for in passion for the World Heritage City; also attracting a reputation amongst a number of students for enthusiastic drinking habits and a fondness for Bath’s limited nightlife. Being in his late 20s, Ben feels the strains of many locals with his deposit for a house being eaten into in order to fund his campaign. Nevertheless, Ben does not demure from the challenge ahead: he asserts that he has been out canvassing every day since 2013, and whilst this smells of exaggeration, the fluency and depth of the issues Ben elucidates on suggest otherwise. Being able to roll-off numbers, dates, areas, people and solutions with ease, you would not be able to pick him out from a slew of Bathonians all voicing their local issues and concerns – so long as you ignore the distinct lacking of the indigenous accent.
Trekking up Bathwick Hill on the canvassing trail, we moved onto his campaign mission and spoke about the local issues he is prioritising. From his initial six-point-plan for the city, to his detailed 14-page manifesto on transport in Bath, Ben has certainly done his homework. Proposals to make Bath greener and reduce congestions are the bud of his campaign, with a view to creating an Oyster card style system within the Somerset vicinity that can be used on all services.
Segregated cycling is also on his agenda and he hopes this can be implemented across the city in conjunction to his proposals to improve housing availability in the city, especially on brownfield sites. Although he does not believe rental caps is the solution to high prices, in opposition to the Labour policy, warning the risk this poses could drive prices higher.
On youth engagement he said that it was ridiculous for MPs to not hold constituency surgeries on university campuses and would like to start this immediately if elected. Then in divisive fashion, Ben took the stance that the argument for reducing tuition fees has been lost and believes that the current system is the most equitable and does believe non-attendees should subsidise fees. Although he wants to see the tuition fees system reformed by cutting out lump-sum allocation by the government, instead preferring universities to receive fees according to per pupil satisfaction to increase competition.
Ben asserted that he takes no ideological rooting in his beliefs, rather describing himself as a ´pragmatist´ in an attempt to attract support from all percentiles of society. For instance, with visceral confidence he informed me that his first campaign was to successfully fight against his local conservatives when they tried to close down a special needs school.
Too often prospective parliamentary candidates build their local campaign off rhetoric formulated in the national campaign and thus demonstrate a blissful ignorance of the concerns and tribulations facing the constituents. Bath might have seen a number of high-profile conservative cabinet ministers visit in the past few months, but there is not a sense that this campaign amplifies, or even revolves around, the national party message. Instead, in the face of fierce attacks by the Liberal Democrats, Ben has taken the moral high ground and has not been dissuaded; rather he is proud of his accomplishments in the face of prejudice and with his endearing ambition to reaffirm Bath’s interests, overturning the fourth-safest Liberal Democrat seat is certainly a challenge he has risen to.