POLITICS

'Get Together And Throw Shapes' How Young Tories Are Trying To Save The Party

HuffPost UK reveals how the Conservatives are trying to win over the youth vote

30/09/2017 07:00 BST | Updated 30/09/2017 07:00 BST
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“For a long time I kept it quiet,” says 21-year-old Ellie King, adding: “I didn’t stand up for things. I would leave it because I couldn’t be bothered with the fuss.”

The great taboo of which Ellie speaks is that she is Conservative Party member.

The Warwick University student is one of the minority of under 25s who preferred Theresa May to Jeremy Corbyn in the June election, with just 6% of Tory voters coming from that age group.

And it’s not as if the situation gets better for the Conservatives when voters leave their mid-20s. Research by YouGov shows that under 47s were more likely to have voted Labour than Tory in the June election. Before the campaign, the flip age was 34.

There is no doubt that if the Tories want to win a majority again in the Commons, they need to work much harder at winning over younger voters.

Those at the top of the Conservatives look with envious eyes at the youth movement inspired by Jeremy Corbyn, realising the infectious enthusiasm of Momentum has helped swell Labour’s membership ranks and provide an army of activists keen to take the party’s message to voters.

Former Tory Minister Rob Halfon sent up a warning flare about the problems facing the party long before the snap election. In an interview with HuffPost UK in July last year – in the turbulent period between the EU referendum and May becoming Prime Minister – the Harlow MP predicted with alarming foresight the battles ahead.

He said: “The party is in danger of dying in my view - the infrastructure is collapsing around the country, the membership is ever aging.”

He added: “You can have the existing stuff going on but you need to create a new kind of grassroots movement.”

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Halfon called for the Conservatives to “launch an assault on the so-called crony capitalism” and become the “party of redistribution”, arguing that extra money generated for the Treasury by tax cuts for the wealthy should be used to cut taxes for the poor or help impoverished communities.

“That’s a Conservative idea of redistribution, rather than a socialist one which says you increase taxes on people and redistribute the wealth,” Halfon said.

Fast-forward to the June election, and the grassroots movement failed to materialise, there was no attack on “crony capitalism” and the party’s slim Commons majority was eradicated.

After such a disastrous result, you would think one of May’s first phone calls would have been to Halfon, asking for his ideas on how to win back younger voters.

Instead, she fired him – with a source claiming the publicity the HuffPost UK interview received after the election was a key factor in his dismissal.

YouGov

Another person who found themselves out of a job after the June election – although this time at the hands of the electorate not the Prime Minister – was Ben Howlett.

The 31-year-old only served as MP for Bath for two years, having been elected in 2015, but prior to sitting on the greenbenches he was well known in the Tory party for his time as chair of youth movement Conservative Future.

The organisation was created in 1998 as part of William Hague’s reform of the party, with the aim of getting younger members more involved in the Tory machine.

Howlett, who was chair from 2010 to 2013, said that when he was in charge “every university had a branch, virtually every constituency had a branch or access to a branch.

“There was about 23,000 members by the end of those three years.”

The Conservative government has robbed the hope of younger people now by delivering Brexit. Ben Howlett, former Tory MP

Speaking to HuffPost UK, Howlett was clear that when he ran Conservative Future, he didn’t want it to be “the embarrassing idiot on the side” of the party, and that it should have respect and influence across the organisation.

Receptions at Downing Street hosted by David Cameron were held for its members, and George Osborne also entertained representatives.

As well as a presence in universities across the country, Conservative Future also provided the party with an army of activists to disperse around the country during elections.

This culminated in the now infamous Road Trip 2015 – a sister organisation to Conservative Future that saw young Tories bussed around the country to help campaign for the party in that year’s General Election.

The project gained notoriety after the suicide of activist Elliot Johnson, who took his own life amid claims of bullying and harassment. The Road Trip programme was shut down after the 2015 General Election, with the brand irreconcilably tarnished.

BBC Newsnight’s report on Road Trip 2015

Howlett, who has always been vocal in his cricitism of the behaviour of those behind Road Trip, is clear that there are lessons to be learnt from the incident.  

“If I was to do it again or were asked to offer advice to the Conservative Party again I would say split up the organisation into two,” he said. “One which would be, say, below 25, largely students and one which is above that age group whereby you’ve got young professionals being involved in something. Young professionals in their 30s don’t really have much interest or have much in common with someone who’s literally 18 to 21, and if they do it’s slightly unhealthy.”

With the age groups separated, Howlett would focus on the networking opportunities available to professionals through joining such an organisation:

“This is the first Conservative government to preside over a system whereby the next generation will be worse off than the current generation. How do you create an organisation, how do you create a system, which enthuses those people to get involved with something quite exciting? What most of us have thought is why don’t we create a young professionals’ movement of networking, of bringing people together to help their career development, of people that will end up advancing political discussion and actually have a bit of fun on a Thursday night going to the Truman Brewery and have a few drinks, sponsored by a big company. You get two to three hundred people in that room. It’s what Momentum do but we would come to it from a different angle because that’s what your market wants.”

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The Momentum group has helped fire up support for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour.

But it is not just structures which need to be looked at if the Conservatives want to attract younger voters – it is policy as well.

Howlett is clear that the Tories’ 2017 campaign, which focused mainly on Brexit, was always going to be a barrier to winning over under 45s.

“The two things the Conservative Party talked about during the election campaign was Brexit and giving the Prime Minister a stronger hand. Well, in my constituency 70% of people didn’t want to give her a hand in the first place, let alone the idea of giving her a stronger hand.”

He added: “You need a narrative of hope because the Conservative government has robbed the hope of younger people now by delivering Brexit. That’s, rightly or wrongly, how the Conservative Party is being perceived.”

So, what policies should Conservatives be focusing on?

Howlett believes tackling the housing crisis is key if the Tories want to offer under-45s a vision of the UK they can buy into.

“Housing in the manifesto didn’t mention young people once,” he says.

“On housing, the figures just don’t stack up. Reform of the planning system - and Labour have been as comparable as the Conservative party and the coalition - has delivered 0.5% success rate. You see a load of statistics bandied around in terms of the highest number of planning applications ever in the history of the planet and yet there are still no houses being built. That’s the loosest phrase, that’s how it’s being perceived.”

Housing was also flagged up as issue by Laura Round from the think-tank Bright Blue, a group which describes itself as “a pressure group for liberal conservatism.”

It was in a speech at Bright Blue event a month after the election that First Secretary of State Damian Green said the party needs “to do much better to convince young metropolitan Britain that the Conservatives are the party for them.”

“We must be in no doubt that this failure has the potential to do serious long-term damage to our party if it isn’t tackled,” he added.

Round believes the Tories election strategy was always unlikely to attract younger voters.

“There seemed to be a choice to abandon the slightly more metropolitan socially liberal voters and go after the more working class voters that traditionally voted for Labour,” she saied: “Now that gamble obviously failed so Bright Blue would argue you need to reconnect with the socially and economically liberal voters which the party managed to do in 2010 and 2015.”

Round flagged up climate change, energy and the environment as issues which 18-to-24-year-olds want to see addressed by the Government, as well as housing.

Additionally, it’s not just what the Tories haven’t been saying which caused young people to fail to back them, but what they have been saying as well. In particular, Theresa May’s claim at last year’s party conference that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”

Round says: “That probably managed to alienate a lot of younger professional people who have quite a socially liberal world outlook.”

If the 2017 election achieved one positive thing for the Conservatives, it jolted them into action. This year’s conference in Manchester is awash with fringe events aimed at solving the riddle of how to attract younger voters. Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) also seems to be determined to tackle the issue, and is inviting in young activists to hear their thoughts.

One who has been invited in is Ellie King – the student who kept her political allegiance quiet for fear of causing a row with her friends. Ellie is one of number of young Tories who has been given a hearing by CCHQ, and in November she and some friends will be launching a project aimed at starting the fightback in the generation wars.

Speaking to HuffPost UK, she was coy on the details, saying: “There’s stuff happening. The main focus is getting more young activists in the party to be more prominent.”

One activity she announced through her Twitter feed is a Young Conservatives Training and Policy Conference to be held in Birmingham in January 2018.

The event was given the go-ahead after Ellie met with CCHQ on September 8.

As well as “speakers, panel discussions, training sessions, policy workshops and a great opportunity to meet fellow Tories” there will also be “social events and a kick ass ball on the Saturday night so we can all throw some epic shapes.”

The aim is to keep the cost for the event, including accommodation and food, at under £50 per person.

Despite having the backing of CCHQ, Ellie is adamant that any new movement must be at arms-length from the main party.

“We have support from CCHQ, but it’s a bottom up approach – it has to be,” she said.

When asked if she is looking to copy Momentum, Ellie hits back instantly: “No, people think it’s more effective than it is. It’s a very nasty sort of politics which we have seen at the Labour conference in the past few days. We don’t want that.”

Ellie’s plans need to be more successful than the bizarre Activate UK group which emerged on Twitter in August.

Described as an independent, grassroots campaign to “engage young people with conservatism”, it was mocked for its first tweet – a Star Wars related meme that has since been deleted.

Activate
The meme Activate used to launch its Twitter account.

It then claimed hackers had seized control of its Twitter account and posts supporting Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg for Tory party leader were part of an attempt to sabotage the organisation.

Another project which was mocked was the Big Ideas Tent Fest, a two-day get-together held on the grounds of a Tory donor in Berkshire on the 21st and 22nd September. Decried as ‘Tory Glastonbury’ by cynics, the event saw 200 Tories take part in debates at three tents: economy; society; and politics. The brainchild of Tory MP George Freeman, the Ideas Fest was designed to get the conversation started around issues which the Tories had been seen to be ignoring for too long.

One attendee was Stephen Canning, a 24-year-old Essex County Councillor from Braintree. He told HuffPost UK: “It was great to be able to meet with people and engage in a relaxed atmosphere.”

He admits that the festival “perhaps wasn’t communicated in the best way at the start”, saying it was more of a “garden party” than a music festival.

But Stephen is adamant the event was a success, especially because as Freeman is part of the Conservative Policy Unit, ideas will be fed into the main party machine.

“For a period of time, young people haven’t been listened to as well as they should have,” he said.

Like Ellie King, Stephen has been into CCHQ to have his brain tapped on how to attract young voters.

He had a simple message for his party: “For young people, it’s about solving the problem around housing, not just to buy but to rent as well.”