Stephen Canning is Deputy Director of Conservative Trade Unionists. an Essex County Councillor and a Braintree District Councillor.
“I was the future once” – those were David Cameron’s words as he ended his last PMQs as Prime Minister in July. Looking even further back than his time as leader of our Party he was the future when he and so many others in our Party belonged to the then Young Conservatives.
At association events across the country, I’ve met elderly members of our Party who recall how they met their current partner through an event for Young Conservatives when they were younger – a testament to the power of the organisation, like many other youth groups, to build long lasting bonds and friendships.
The Conservative Party has had a complicated relationship with its younger members for a large part of its history. From the infamous days of the Young Conservatives and Conservative Students, which were merged into the latest iteration Conservative Future, to more recent problems around governance and oversight.
However, being a Conservative is now not just cool, it is positively in vogue. In the South, the North, Wales, Scotland and even on reality TV shows – being young and a Tory is something many people are happy to shout about.
Also contrary to the narrative, being young and politically engaged is on the rise. On the Remain side of the campaign and the Leave side, my friends were some of the most active. From organising rallies to hitting the doorsteps, to manning the HQs and sitting at the highest levels of the organisations – to say young people weren’t highly engaged on both sides of this campaign is a fallacy.
The leadership campaigns too helped demonstrate the energy, the ideas and the sheer passion that younger members have in our Party. For both Theresa May and for Andrea Leadsom there were young members of Party in key positions in their campaigns, being their loudest advocates online and joining their rallies, speeches and marches.
If we are to ensure that young people like these help continue the oldest political party long into the future – in the association offices, in the council chambers, on the green benches and at the dispatch box – we need to invest in our youth wing.
So what is the best way to help the youth members? Shut the youth wing.
Now that may sound counter-intuitive. But, much like we want more women to be in leading positions of our Party, we want young people to help move forward and take a lead in the Conservative Party going forward. The best way for us to achieve this is to make them part of our Party, not assign them a separate label.
I’d suggest the Party reforms need to look at how we make a youth officer a position at the association level, at the area level, at the regional level and at the national level. Encouraging young people to be integrated directly in their local associations and within the voluntary Party structure – not as an outside group. The need for a national chairman elected to represent all young members is a concept which I think has proven to be not ideal – the youth of our Party are even more diverse, dispersed and rebellious than the ‘main’ party and to try and centralise it is an exercise destined to fail.
The Party should also look to equip the future of the Party with training – from public speaking to media skills and CV workshops to debate training – so that being a young member of the Conservative Party delivers tangible benefits in terms of personal and professional growth.
A new impetus should begin to drive these young people into local government which is incidentally going through the most exciting and most challenging phase in its history, a stage where a fresh young perspective will be invaluable.
The time is right to show that we are the party of young and old, that being a young Tory is cool and that where Labour have Momentum, we have direction.
So come on May, let the young join the Party.