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

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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.”

PA Archive/PA Images

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.

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…

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