The Conservative Party has a young people problem. The 2017 election saw the party win over just 19 percent of the youngest voters, with concerns about housing, tuition fees and Brexit seriously damaging the Tory image.
Meanwhile, Labour’s surge in popularity during the election campaign – especially among younger voters – was widely credited to the grassroots activist network Momentum. Thousands of volunteers were mobilised to campaign for Labour online and on doorsteps, with innovative new digital campaigning tools funnelling activists to the most marginal seats.
It was in this context that a senior Conservative MP began calling for a "Tory Momentum", describing the party's grassroots infrastructure as "either ageing or non-existent". Soon after, Activate was born.
The launch was a total failure. The group’s terrible memes and £500 joining fee were widely ridiculed, and journalists soon noticed that the "grassroots" group's code of ethics closely mirrored Conservative Party policy. Moreover, the organisation’s all-male national committee was chaired by Conservative councillor and former campaign manager Gary Markwell, who, despite being 37 years old, was "responsible for the overall running" of the youth group.
And finally, as onlookers wondered whether the launch could go any worse, Activate lost control of their old Twitter handle to a parody account, and then lost control of their new Twitter handle to a hacker. The "official" Twitter and Facebook pages soon began to accuse each other of being hacked. After Activate’s official spokesman, Sam Ancliff, appeared on the BBC’s Daily Politics, Activate’s Twitter denounced him as a fraud as the group claimed their account had been "hacked".
That was the end of Activate – or so it seemed. Over the next few months, several committee roles changed hands, and the group adopted a new constitution. For a brief period, the national committee even included a female member, though this proved short-lived. Activate was ready to start again.
The mid-March launch event was well-planned and well-publicised. Billed as a "campaign launch" and a "networking event", raunchy adverts were targeted at Activate members on Facebook. A large room was booked in east London, including a bar with central London prices.
Despite the best efforts of Activate’s digital marketing meme machine, only 28 people turned up to the launch event, including four Tory councillors, two undercover reporters and two women under the age of 50. The group had booked a room for 150 people, so attendees congregated awkwardly around the free prosecco.
When it became clear that no more guests were arriving, middle-aged chairman Gary Markwell took the microphone. He reiterated warnings about the Conservative vote share among young people, but stopped short of calling for an overhaul of party policy, of the kind Momentum have pushed for in Labour – or, in fact, any policy change at all. Instead, the solution offered was greater visibility of young Conservatives on the doorstep. Speeches from Conservative councillors followed, asking for help in the upcoming May elections.
The star of the night was Sam Ancliff, who runs Activate’s Twitter account and has appeared as the group's spokesman on the BBC and Russia Today. Sam has a vape which he calls "The Beast", and used to be an anarcho-communist. Friends boasted that he had fired a shot in anger as a private in Afghanistan.
When Sam eventually came to take down my name on his clipboard, I asked him how he'd got involved with Activate. "I don't really know," he replied. "I sort of just knew some of the people who set it up, and they said this role needed filling."
As the second councillor wound down his speech, Sam ducked his head, took a big puff on his vape and strolled onto the stage for the raffle. The prize was a bottle of "limited edition" Activate wine, which I can say I was genuinely upset not to win.
I had come to Activate's launch event to learn how they aimed to learn from Momentum’s success, and how far they had come since their first launch attempt. What I found was an organisation with under 1,000 members, focused on personal career development and social media marketing rather than grassroots activism or discussing which policies might make the world better.
A blog post on Activate’s website titled "How Conservatives Can Win The Youth Vote" seems to treat young people as aliens. "Their political beliefs are far less a result of considered opinion than we might think… As a child needs to be persuaded by his or her teacher of some of the counter-intuitive physical laws of nature, so do they need to be persuaded of the laws of human tendencies," writes the author, sounding like David Attenborough looking at a rare mammal. Tellingly, the advice offered is to make the same arguments for the same policies, but… better.
"Brexit will be our Iraq."
Activate's website offers one piece of political literature, an e-book titled "Start a Career in Politics", while the members' pack promises future events "designed to help young people stand for election". Members I talked to were not fond of Momentum’s "collectivist" structure and "radical" proposals, pointing out that these were not typically considered conservative values. Instead, they were largely satisfied with the size of the group and its minimal deviations from Conservative Party policy.
Few, however, were under any illusions about the problems Conservative policy posed for the youth vote. "Brexit will be our Iraq," one member told me. "It will be a millstone around our neck. But we can't ditch it."
Campaigning efforts are focused almost entirely on social media marketing. "It's amazing what a response Tommy Robinson and Britain First get on Facebook, how they engage people," chairman Gary Markwell said. "Every now and then you see that one of your Facebook friends has shared one of their videos, and you’re like – wow, they've got 25,000 likes."
The reception finished an hour earlier than advertised, but in the end it felt long enough. No one really seemed to know what they were doing, and the whole night resembled a networking event for potential council candidates more than a fiery Momentum meeting.
I can’t blame Activate for the state of their organisation – trying to create a "Tory Momentum" is probably the hardest job in politics. Momentum succeeded on the back of its grassroots culture and radical policy proposals, yet the current Conservative Party is characterised by back-stabbing cabinet members and has a complete lack of vision beyond March, 2019.
Activate was doomed from the start with the impossible mission of being the vehicle for a conservative mass movement that never existed.
UPDATE 11/02/18: After this article was published, Activate contacted VICE to dispute some of the facts included in this article. Our response is published here.