Help the Aged: Why the Tories Can't Start a Youth Movement

The Tories energised youth movement helped win them the 2015 election, but a shocking suicide and accusations of bullying destroyed the party's young base. Now, Tory members – average age 57 – must win back the youth vote, or watch their party croak.

|
Oct 2 2017, 4:21pm

Chris Bethell

Last month, Conservative MP James Cleverly was asked about the disastrous snap election his party had just gone through. Instead of sounding as gloomy and desperate as some of his colleagues, his response was oddly upbeat:

"This general election will go down in history as a turning point; the massive interest and voter turnout among young people is a game changer, and even though it cost us, as the Conservative party, our majority and very nearly our place in government, I absolutely welcome it because it will mean that my party will have to get its shit together when it comes to younger people."

Cleverly, one of the party's rising stars, isn't the only one aware that the party must do something to attract younger voters, and do it sooner rather than later.

Last month, around 200 people spent a day in a field in Twyford for what was bleakly nicknamed "the Tory Glastonbury" by the press. The Big Tent Festival, organised by 50-year-old Conservative MP George Freeman, aimed to discuss ways to renew centre-right politics, and come up with policies appealing to non-traditional Conservative voters.

The Big Tent Festival, photo by Alastair Moore

While listening to a violinist play a Bach sonata and mingling with a bunch of 30-somethings in Barbour gilets might not seem like the obvious way forward, the event was part of a wider sense of panic among a governing party aware that it's lost its touch.

The Tories' anxiety certainly is justified: analysis by Ipsos Mori showed that in May of 2017, 62 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds and 56 percent of 25 to 34-year-olds voted for the Labour party. The Conservatives got 27 percent of the vote in both age groups and only took their lead back with 45 to 54-year-olds and above.

Though young people were never the Tories' core vote, these figures represent a steep drop from even 2015: in two years, the Labour party grew its lead over them by 19 points for 18 to 24-year-olds, and a staggering 26 points for 25 to 34-year-olds.

Internally, things aren't exactly brighter: Monica Poletti, who has been studying party membership for Queen Mary University, found that "Tory members in 2017 were older than they were in 2015 – on average, in 2015 they were 54, and this year it was 57 [...] and four out of ten are over 66".

How did the Tories let things get this bad, and where do they go from here? The party's MPs, grandees and activists are currently spending four days together in Manchester for their annual conference, and attempting to solve the youth problem is high up on the agenda.

Speaking to academics, campaigners and bona fide young Conservatives in the run up to the event revealed one thing: the issues run even deeper than they seem, and there is no easy way back from the wilderness.

"They're not voting Conservative because no one is telling them why they should. They don't want to join a Conservative group because that's cringe. The Tories have got neither the policies nor the image. "

"The problem is that no one is ready to admit that they vote Conservative, even if they do," complained Olivia Utley, a 23-year-old Conservative. "I lived in Battersea during the election, which is the youngest constituency in the country, and the most educated, and I knew a lot of people in the area. A lot of those friends who are very entrepreneurial, quite techy, who have a lot of ideas for business, are very aspirational people and natural Conservatives, but they weren't voting Conservative because they weren't hearing any message about aspiration.

"So you've got all these aspirational young people who you'd think would believe in the free market and everything, but they're not voting Conservative because no one is telling them why they should, and they don't want to join a Conservative group because that's cringe, so they've got neither the policies nor the image."

Utley, who was working for culture secretary Karen Bradley at the time, even admitted that she was "a bit reluctant to vote Tory in the election", but is still sticking to the party.

Others have simply given up: Jack Thompson is a 25-year-old Londoner who became a "card-carrying member" of the Tories at school, but started wavering after the referendum and decided to leave a year ago.

"After Theresa May's conference speech in 2016 I didn't feel welcome in the party any more, and didn't want to be involved or associated with it," he said. "Brexit played a key role in why I left, but also the way the Conservatives were acting in government. Incompetence seems to rule the roost [...] The blasé approach to the biggest reformation of our economy and politics in decades is astonishing and left me with little faith in the party. The current furore over the Foreign Secretary is a prime example, where a petulant oaf with no aptitude for the role is too busy scheming to successfully perform in a position of utmost importance."

Like Olivia, Jack thinks the party has stopped talking to young metropolitan and ambitious people like him, and points out they can't rely on the elderly forever.

"To speak frankly, the core Conservative vote is dying off. Not enough people have a tangible stake in the country, and when you're on low pay with no assets, why would you think the current system works for you? The Conservative Party needs to work out how to renew opportunity in the country, because whilst entrepreneurialism is strong here, living standards appear to be dropping away."

A way for the Conservatives to learn how to appeal to this section of the population again would be to actually get like-minded young people involved in the process, which some in the party are already calling for. A report from CCHQ was drawn up after the election and called for the creation of a "well-equipped, disciplined and engaged generation of members" sooner rather than later.

This is not the first time the idea has been floated in recent times, and it does seem sensible, but the grim legacy of Conservative Future and Road Trip 2015 – two Conservative youth groups where a culture of bullying led to the suicide of one activist – is still omnipresent in the minds of most Tories.

The former was founded by William Hague in 1998, but properly took off when David Cameron became party leader and in the ensuing years, and had become a stable campaigning force.

Ben Howlett, the former Bath MP, was the chair of Conservative Future from 2010 to 2013, and explained: "I took the organisation from quite a low base; it had very few members and few branches which were actually big and successful. The general strategy in 2010 was to turn it into an organisation that was respected and was actually doing something, because they used to do very little, and whatever they did do was generally seen as a bit of an embarrassment – it'd often be these random young people doing something quite silly. We then tried to start changing that reputation by organising positive events and positive campaigning, getting involved in the nitty-gritty of the policy, and by 2013 we had 23,000 members across the country."

The organisation's popularity continued to rise and, in March of 2014, Road Trip 2015 was founded and immediately attracted many Conservative Future members.

Launched by former CF chair Mark Clarke, the group's purpose was to make young Tory activists travel around the country to campaign in the party's target seats, then reward them with promises of booze-fuelled nights out with MPs once the leafletting was done.

According to a piece he wrote for Conservative Home at the time, Clarke decided to launch Road Trip "after seeing in Tooting in 2010 how the unions bussed in hundreds of activists to swamp us", and intended to create a "grassroots insurrection".

Young activists at the 2015 Party Conference Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

This plan largely worked, and the group is widely thought to have contributed to the Conservatives' victory in May of 2015, by bussing in dozens of keen young activists to places where the local Tory associations were dormant, or mostly populated with pensioners.

Though rumours had been floating around about what happened during those messy nights out, things turned sour in September of 2015, with the suicide of 21-year-old Elliott Johnson.

The young activist had been working for another campaigning group, Conservative Way Forward, was a member of Conservative Future and was heavily bullied by fellow Tory supporters.

The man at the centre of the allegations around Johnson's death was Mark Clarke himself, and he was eventually banned from the party after more people came forward to complain about his behaviour. A report later identified 13 alleged victims of Clarke's. Through a solicitor, Clarke said he "vehemently denied" all allegations made against him in the report.

The number of stories about harassment and sexual assault in young Tory circles also led to the suspension of the CF national executive committee, followed by the closure of CF altogether a few months later.

"Not very long ago we had some very, very bad things happen to our youth movement, and there were many issues about governance and others that we've not fully addressed yet, so we're very cautious about our youth offering until we get that stuff sorted," James Cleverly said in September.

Tom Harwood, a 21-year-old Tory activist and former Vote Leave campaigner, agrees. "A huge factor into why young people didn't actively campaign this year was the wider allegations that followed 2015. It is a nettle that we're going to have to grasp, but the scandal and tragedy surrounding it certainly hampered [the movement]," he said. "It was something we were beating the Labour party on; when Road Trip and all these things were going on, we had sometimes hundreds of activists in target seats, which certainly was a big part of winning that election. It is crucial to replicate the good bits, but of course the challenge is to avoid the issues that came about last time."

While the fear of recreating problems that were only just dealt with partly explains the Tories' internal lack of youth organisation, there is one other culprit: complacency.

With May's party comfortably hovering around 30 points above Labour at the beginning of the year, the party's supremos didn't see the need to worry about young people.

"This is something the central party has only woken up to after the election," Harwood explained. "Some people before the election were saying, 'I'm knocking on so many doors where the two parents are both voting Conservative and the three kids are voting Labour,' and the reply we got then was, 'Oh, that's always been the case, don't worry about it. It was as true in the 1980s as it is true now; they'll grow up.' But I think that, now, CCHQ has definitely woken up to this fact."

"Young people, frankly, or any normal person, isn't going to be turning up to rallies wearing Theresa May T-shirts and waving flags saying 'fields of wheat'. That's not going to happen."

Realising there's a problem is an important first step, but the second isn't immediately obvious. Though a lot of Conservatives throughout the party think they need to watch and learn from Momentum's impressive campaigning tactics, they're aware that a simple copy and paste wouldn't be enough.

A bleakly amusing anecdote from Tim Ross and Tom McTague's book on the election, Betting the House, involves Theresa May's aides asking colleagues to organise a big rally to counter images of Corbyn addressing gigantic crowds all over the country.

According to the journalists' post-mortem, "The idea was dropped after it was realised she would be unlikely to draw the same crowds and would look pathetic by comparison."

"Young people, frankly, or any normal person, isn't going to be turning up to rallies wearing Theresa May T-shirts and waving flags saying 'fields of wheat'. That's not going to happen," Ben Howlett pointed out. "But there is an opportunity to do big networking, big events, and actually engage with the about 7 or 8 million people across the UK that voted Conservative and are below the age of 47."

What shouldn't happen, however, is the sudden appearance of a young Tory group on social media, immediately followed by a tasteless scandal and endless infighting broadcast publicly for all to see.

"The organisation that shot quite a lot of us in the foot is Activate, because it was such a useless launch by a bunch of amateurs," Howlett added, which feels like an understatement.

Though some of the details are still unclear, the grassroots campaign launched on the 28th of August, with the aim to "engage young people with conservatism".

The group was promptly mocked for its awkward use of outdated memes, and only two days later political gossip website Guido Fawkes published screen grabs of a WhatsApp conversation of Activate campaigners joking about "gassing chavs".

A screen cap from the Activate twitter

What followed was a confusing week in which several warring factions seemed to all have access to the Twitter account and kept arguing with one another, on the same Twitter account, about who should be in control of the group.

If this is what happens when Tory teenagers are left in charge of organising themselves, the other option – mostly middle-aged politicos gathering in the back garden of a businessman in Berkshire to try to understand what the youth wants – is hardly edifying either.

On the other hand, it does show a level of self-awareness coming from some of the Tory ranks, who get that they cannot simply mirror Labour's sudden upheaval.

Olivia Utley, who helped organised Big Tent, explained: "The Conservative party are trying to do what the Labour party did and create a sort of Momentum movement, which is never going to work. I think the way to appeal to young people is trying to come up with engaging policies, and that's what George's festival tried to do."

There is also one issue they cannot get around: Theresa May.

When discussing Momentum's successes, a lot of Tories seem to forget that the leader came before the movement, and the campaigning body wouldn't have been so popular if it hadn't been for the irresistible rise of Jeremy Corbyn.

The Big Tent Festival, photo by Alastair Moore

As someone who was part of an unexpectedly successful campaign and a surprisingly damp one in just over a year, Tom Harwood said that he could see why more people his age were drawn to Vote Leave than the Conservatives.

"People are more likely to give up their Saturdays and Sundays to go knock on doors for a cause that's going to be transformative and something they really believe in, rather than what I think we've flipped into in the Conservative party: bland managerialism that's less likely to inspire and engage a wide variety of young people," he explained.

Olivia Utley agreed, adding that "it always comes back to Theresa May" and that "her messaging had nothing for young people", but while getting rid of her would be a start, there aren't any obvious people to replace her with.

"Who else is there?" she asked. "There's no one. The only person in the Tory party who could do it is Amber Rudd, and she's got a majority of 350. David Davis has already lost two leadership elections; no young person is going to be like [clicks fingers], 'You know who I want to vote for? David Davis!'"

The other reality is that a party spending most of its time fighting against itself is hardly appealing to voters, let alone younger ones who might not be particularly enthusiastic about politics to start with.

This doesn't mean Labour should get complacent about its hold on the country's young people, however, as millennials are far less partisan than any generation before them.

Bobby Duffy, who studied generational splits on opinions and behaviours for Ipsos Mori, explained: "One of the biggest trends is feeling close to one particular party; it's very generational – you've got 70 percent of the pre-war generation saying they feel close to one political party, then it goes down progressively with Baby Boomers, Gen X and all the way down to 20 percent of millennials. There's much more fluidity than there was in the past, so there's no automatic connection there."

His study also found that, contrary to popular beliefs, today's young people aren't necessarily closer to Labour ideologically: "What we saw was a greater emphasis on individual responsibility and a rejection of the idea that big institutional response is necessarily the best thing," he explained. "We saw that with the connection to the welfare state as an institution, that connection is so much weaker among the younger population. Seventy percent of the pre-war group would say it's one of the things they're most proud about in Britain, and only 20 percent of millennials think the same."

While this doesn't have to translate into the notion of a generation suddenly worshipping Thatcher's ghost, it does show that on at least certain issues, the Conservatives are closer than they think to the generation that's escaped from them.

It would also help them to remember that a wide majority of young people did vote to remain in the EU, and even the mildest and most resigned of remainers might not be attracted to a party branding itself as the Brexit vanguard, which is more or less what they did in May.

"Rightly or wrongly, young people think the Conservative party has robbed them of their future and created a huge amount of risk, and thinking about what Theresa May said on the steps of Downing Street, it was that we should give a voice to those who don't have one or used to have one in the past," said Ben Howlett. "Young people have not had a voice for a long period of time, and the Tories need to think about organising a young person's movement that has nothing to do with Brexit, and focusing on housing or education, things like full employment."

They probably should, but if the past few months in Westminster have shown anything, it's that anything unrelated to Brexit currently is doomed to occupy very little space in leading Tories' brains.

They might have realised that there is a problem, but is there the will or the imagination to come up with a solution? Unless this year's conference throws up a real surprise, Jeremy Corbyn's hold on Britain's youth will remain, and the ageing Tories will take another step closer to death.

@marieleconte

More VICE
Vice Channels