Conservative activists up and down the country find themselves groaning (again) as a scandal involving young Tories unfolds (again). I’m not going to write about the debacle surrounding the launch of ‘grassroots’ organisation ‘Activate’. Suffice to say it has been disaster, and the approach and comments of members of the team that have been reported in the press do not reflect the party I love and activists I know.
What I want to talk about is why this keeps happening.
Why did RoadTrip2015 fold after being engulfed in a scandal of the most awful kind?
Why did Conservative Future die away after a sorry set of developments?
Why has this latest campaign group appeared and disappeared with such spectacular failure?
To me, the answer is actually pretty straight forward: the Conservative Party undervalues its activists, and particularly its young activists.
Young people were treated as cannon fodder by the Conservative Party in successive elections; called on to deliver leaflets and knock doors during the campaign period, but with no effort to value or engage them through the political cycle.
This lack of interest in the grassroots party left it vulnerable to unscrupulous people who wanted to build an empire and use youth campaigning as a spring board into professional politics. The central party didn’t mind it happening as long as it delivered campaigners to key constituencies, even going so far as ignoring repeated warnings from many sources of the dodgy practices within various party-affiliated groups.
When it could no longer ignore these problems, when private complaints blew up in public and our movement lost one of its finest, the Party did not respond constructively. They shut it down. They promised a review, a new group and all that jazz, but two years later they haven’t got round to doing anything meaningful.
In the two years since the Conservative Party abandoned youth politics (and sat in Westminster wondering why not very many young people vote Tory) many people have recognised that this is a problem. That to be sustainable over decades the party needs to pull in young people. That to win elections in the here-and-now, the party needs to have committed and enthused activists. And that as our Conservative Associations up and down the country see their average age rising, we especially need young people who can knock on doors for four hours solid.
Many people have also realised that the garden party, the drinks at the yacht club, and the national draw are not in any way even mildly interesting to even the biggest political geek under the age of 25. The Conservative Party is old. Its thinking is old. Its approach is old. And it’s an incredible shame because despite the impression the media gives, there are thousands and thousands of highly committed, highly engaged young Conservatives up and down the country.
The gap has been filled by amateurs like Activate. Though they have spotted the gap, through lack of experience, poor networks or less than honourable intentions they have really messed it up. And we are all damaged by it. Every story that portrays young Conservatives as nasty, out of touch amateurs hurts our reputation collectively and individually, no matter how different we are to those featured or how distant we are from their ill-conceived scheme.
It is time for CCHQ to grip this. And to do so it needs to do three very simple things:
- Change their attitude: Stop viewing activists as a necessary but distasteful evil, and realise the importance of a valued and engaged voluntary party.
- Draw on expertise: To establish a safe and engaging youth wing, the party should be looking to best practice from youth workers and others around activities and safeguarding. This is not rocket science and it doesn’t need to be innovative – just get the basics rights.
- Cut out the ambition: This new structure needs to cut out the multiple positions, the older people with questionable motives working with the young, and the sense that a leadership role in the young Tories is a stepping stone to bigger things – this will then remove the incentive for unscrupulous people that have been attracted to youth politics in the past.
My message is simple, and it is clear: the longer you leave this, the worse it will get. For goodness sake please sort it out.