Luke de Pulford works for the Whitehouse Consultancy and lives in London.
We have heard a disappointing amount about Conservative branding in the last few months. This is disappointing because implicit in the discussion is that the public cares as much about the face of conservatism as the substance of Party policy. I don’t think this is true, but, then again, there must be some reason that Tory voting intention in the polls stubbornly refuses to break 35 despite a string of recent political triumphs for the Government.
The brand is certainly an obstacle. Even the word ‘Tory’ feels like profanity when it passes the lips.Twenty plus years of negative media references has embedded in the popular imagination a kind of Pavlovian aversion, triggered whenever the T-bomb is dropped. And what kind of mental associations does it conjure? Olde worlde ideas promoted by the privileged few with a bit of nastiness mixed in for good measure. No wonder SpAds are so keen to prevent Party luminaries from using it.
But the image problem isn’t confined to language or branding. If Conservatives want to win the next election, or indeed, any election in the future, there’s a worrying branch of Tory culture that desperately needs pruning. If you hang around Parliament, London’s clubs (I don’t mean the Ministry of Sound sort), or party conference, you’ll discover a whole breed of young Conservative who seem actually to have embraced the Tory caricature of the media. It’s a new kind of Young Fogey Toryism. But these aren’t A.N. Wilson-type fogeys, who at least knew what they believed. This new Young Fogey Toryism is characterised by an affected wannabe-toff aesthetic dominated by vicious, socially Darwinist groupthink centred on people trying to out-conservative one another. Frankly, it’s pretty weird.
I’m not the first to notice this. Some of you may remember BBC2’s 2012 hatchet-job “Wonderland: Young, Bright, and on the Right” which made joining Young Conservatives seem about as appealing as a colonoscopy. I’ve included a particularly excruciating excerpt below. At about the same time, Tim Stanley had a punt at trying to explain the phenomenon, describing the fogeys as “kids who delay their adolescence until their forties” and end up mired in scandal when they inevitably break in to politics. Also at the Telegraph, Tim Wigmore puts the fogeys down to careerism borne of stultifying inadequacy. He even overheard one character attempting chat up a journalist with the grab-your-coat dead-cert winner: “girls mostly don’t know about politics, but you do!”
Seriously, though, as things stand, the Tory label labours under connotations of class, vested interests and a lack of political integrity. So much of the new Young Fogeyism actually predicates itself upon these toxic ideas that Tory high command needs ruthlessly to root it out it if there is to be any chance of communicating to future voters that a Conservative majority is a good thing for Britain.
Yes, yes, I’m painting with a broad brush. It’s obviously not the case that all – or even a majority – of young Party activists are this way inclined. But in London their number is far from insignificant and on the increase. Given that the London scene sets the tone for the rest of the country, this is something that bears thinking about. It may even point to the very nucleus of the image problem: what is it about the Conservative Party that attracts this sort of character? Why don’t they go to Labour? What can the Tories do to prevent Millbank from being overrun by deeply confused, divisive and alienating Brideshead types in ten years’ time? You don’t have to have pounded the streets of any constituency for very long to find out that the very last thing “hardworking: people want is to be told what is good for them by a tweed-clad, faux-Sloaney-voweled aristo-aspirant. As the numbers crunchers keep telling us, voters value authenticity. It’s hard to imagine a less authentic, less representative image for austerity Britain than this.
I’m also worried about the effect this will have on the social fabric of the young Party. The success of political parties depends upon networks, friendships and common interests. Imagine that you are a young, working-class Conservative in a Labour stronghold surrounded by perennially Labour constituencies. Is your ideological allegiance to the Party going to be strong enough to transcend the gulf between you and your London Tory counterparts? Would you feel that you were fighting the same fight? Probably not, which may help to explain the paltry number of young party members outside of London, and especially the North, where Conservatives must win if an overall majority is to become a reality.
There’s no quick fix for this. But if the Party is serious about addressing its image problem, it needs to make Tory membership an uncomfortable place to be for those who seek to refashion Conservatism in to a cultural oddity that has more to do with the chips on the shoulders of its adherents than the fate of the nation. It will only achieve this by attending to first principles, making clear what it does and does not mean to be Tory, and by attempting to build a culture of commitment to service amongst its members. However wrong they may be on substance, Labour’s young are admirable for their social diversity and conviction. If the same could be said of young Tories, the future would look a lot brighter.