Mark Pengelly is a financial journalist, a Conservative Party activist and a prospective borough council candidate in Woking.
A week ago, a rather unusual article appeared on this site. It was unusual because of what it said, and who wrote it.
Isaac Duffy is a student working towards his A-levels. Duffy became secretary of his local Conservative association aged 16. He is now a borough council candidate and deputy area chairman of Cleveland and County Durham Conservatives.
Duffy wrote to express his view that Conservative Future, the party’s embattled youth wing, ought to be scrapped. Party members who join in their younger years are happy with the main party and don’t need to be patronised with their own organisation, he argues. He also believes CF has a “factious and divided” culture.
Duffy’s success, ambition and his level of engagement with the Conservative Party should make us all proud. But, unfortunately, he is an outlier.
During the 1950s, the two largest political parties could together boast more than 3.8 million members, according to an August briefing paper from the House of Commons Library. Today, the combined membership of the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems doesn’t even make it to 500,000. Where they exist, party members are ageing – this is especially true in the Conservative Party – and the general lack of engagement is more evident among younger people.
The problem of declining party membership and disenchantment with politics should worry all the main parties. Interestingly, it is often said that younger people are increasingly liberal in outlook, both socially and economically. This trend potentially favours our cause, but we must grab it with both hands. That means nurturing a youth movement that sits alongside our mainstream party organisation.
CF was born in October 1998, the product of a merger between the Young Conservatives, the Conservative Collegiate Forum and the National Association of Conservative Graduates. Part of the idea behind the merger, which was somewhat ironically overseen by William Hague, was shaking off the old “Tory Boy” image.
My own experience with CF was almost wholly positive. I first joined the party in 2000, at the age of 16, and began attending CF meetings in Reading. Those meetings were informal and fun – they usually consisted of a few friends sharing views and ideas about politics over a beer in a local pub. Thanks in no small part to that friendly and easy-going welcome, I became an active member of the party and have campaigned for Conservative candidates ever since. Next year, after 15 years of involvement with the party, I am looking forward to standing for election to my local borough council in Woking.
That’s just my story, of course. There are many others out there whose interest in Conservative politics was amplified by their experience with CF; many of those people are doing even greater work for our party than me.
The existence of CF recognises the critical importance of encouraging young people to get involved in Conservative politics. That means offering them something more than the usual medley of fundraising raffles, finger sandwiches and warm white wine. Inevitably, they are often – though not exclusively – interested in meeting other members of a similar age.
In no way are CF members excluded from other party events or association positions, and nor should they be. Duffy’s own success happily demonstrates just how far someone can advance in the Conservative Party at an early age. In my experience, local associations eagerly cultivate the full participation of members under 30, and the smartest associations encourage CF members to attend events by offering them a discount. In this sense, CF membership is not some kind of poor substitute for full membership of the party, but an added benefit.
Most ordinary party members are appalled by the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Elliott Johnson, which must be thoroughly investigated. Criticism of the current structure of CF and the level of oversight it receives from CCHQ should also be taken seriously. Perhaps it is horribly divided and fractious, and badly needs reforming.
None of this changes the fact that our party needs a youth movement. It is not enough to sit on our hands and wait for young people to flock towards their political home once they are old enough. We must repair and nurture CF, or its successor organisation, to ensure that our party continues to flourish well into the 21st Century.