The storming general election triumph may have concealed a real electoral problem for the Conservative Party, which will bubble to the surface with little subtlety in years to come: its young people problem. The Labour ‘youthquake’ in 2017 nearly put Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10. This time around, the attention given to new Tory voters in former Labour heartlands skirts what could become the defining electoral issue in the foreseeable future.
Age is by far the strongest predictor of how someone will vote in UK elections. A mere 21 per cent of those aged 18-24 voted Conservative last month, versus over two thirds of over 70s. For every 10 years younger a person is, their chance of voting Tory decreases by around nine per cent. The Conservative Party urgently needs to take some simple steps to refresh its image and reinvigorate its youth wing in order to make itself more palatable to young people.
James Cleverly is that rare thing; a politician who knows how to make effective use of social media. His Twitter presence rivals even Liz Truss’s Instagram (the highest conceivable compliment in this field). He avoids the admittedly delightful dweebishness of some of his colleagues and seems to have cracked the online code of balancing serious point-making with top-notch memes.
His winning formula of earnest statements and good-natured joshing should be applied to the Conservative Party’s social media strategy as a whole. Combined with the ensuing blitz in targeted advertising, we may finally see some worthy rebuttals to those offensively incompetent Momentum campaign videos, which plunge terrifying new depths of economic illiteracy and often remain largely unchallenged.
Young Conservative members – and potential members – must see in our party an organisation with which they are proud to be associated. Since social media is so often a primary means of political engagement for young people, a comprehensive online strategy is of the utmost importance. Poor use of social media is a sure-fire way to send them running. We must make ourselves seem both competent and attractive; professional yet welcoming.
Engagement with emerging groups
Where official Conservative presence has been lacking, young members have often taken up the initiative to mobilise among themselves. Organic movements include campaign group Students for Brexit, neoliberal platform 1828 (of which I am deputy editor) and the so-called ‘Tory youth trade union’ Blue Beyond. These are in addition, of course, to existing party-affiliated groups with a strong youth presence, such as Conservative Young Women and LGBT+ Conservatives.
It is imperative that the party now seeks to engage with these groups, rather than attempting to supplant them – even those who currently carry no official party affiliation. It must be made clear to these self-made activists that there is a place for them within the party. These people have invested their own time and effort into crafting grassroots movements espousing Conservative values. Those among them who are already Tory members must be made to feel appreciated, and the remainder should be shown just how amiable and energetic a community the Conservative party is.
Labour Students, the group recently dissolved by Momentum founder Jon Lansman, was a vibrant university campaign group, entirely distinct from Young Labour. The Conservative Party does not necessarily need a similar organisation dedicated solely to students, but university campuses remain chronically underused as a vehicle for mobilising young Tories. At present, university groups such as the LSE Conservative Society (of which I am treasurer) are forced to operate independently of the party.
Allowing university societies to seek affiliation to the party would help enormously by gifting them a degree of legitimacy since they broadly operate under the Conservative banner regardless. Being an official part of the party would facilitate more effective collaboration with local associations and aid the creation of a truly pertinent Conservative presence on campuses.
The raison d’être of the relatively young Blue Beyond group, at least partially, is to provide a networking space for young Tories who move outside the usual circles; predominantly, those who do not live within walking distance of SW1A and may therefore find it more difficult to attend Party events and generally be proactive in their membership.
Last year’s travelling leadership contest hustings, in which the party pitched its tent in sixteen locations across the country, should be the rule, not the exception. The Conservative Party has over 160,000 members, very few of whom live in Westminster. The majority who reside elsewhere must be made to feel just as engaged with the party as those who live inside the bubble. Our party must be accessible to all.
Local association youth branches
Of course, party infrastructure already exists across the country in the form of local associations. The creation of youth branches of those associations, however, has been frustratingly slow. Data is hard to come by, but the last official update in March placed the number of youth associations at “over 100”. That still leaves hundreds of constituencies lacking an active youth wing, which can prove a significant obstacle to young members becoming involved with their local party.
It only takes a few budding young Tories in a constituency to get a youth association up and running. The party leadership should engage in a conscious and concerted effort to encourage and aid the creation of new such branches, including equipping young leaders with the resources and skills necessary to coalesce effectively, organise events, canvass, hold recruitment drives, and so on. These youth associations will also, of course, prove very useful when 2024 rolls around and there is a need for leaflet-brandishing pavement-pounders.
Sara Britcliffe, the new MP for Hyndburn and Haslingden and the youngest member of the parliamentary Conservative Party recently joined former party vice-chair Ben Bradley in endorsing the idea of a Minister for Youth. Such a role existed between 2009 and 2014, as a Parliamentary Secretary role in the Cabinet Office. Reviving this portfolio and, crucially, allowing its holder to work efficiently across departments would send out a strong signal that this new Conservative government cares about young people.
All six of these points are entirely within reach. None are especially expensive or time-consuming. When we find ourselves having to win the country over once again in 2024, which will come around much faster than we think, having a youth wing that feels valued and is sufficiently energised might just swing the balance, especially when it comes to that critical youth vote.