Stephen Canning is a former National Executive member of the Conservative Party’s Youth Wing and a County Councillor in Essex.
A year ago this week, I dared to write on this site that “being a Conservative is now not just cool, it is positively in vogue”. I still stand by this assertion, and believe our Party has an appeal to this new generation of young people, some of whom I have met during the referendum campaign and the Party leadership campaigns. However, we most certainly don’t have a movement – and I don’t believe we will any time soon.
Our mistake? Wanting a movement. Movements aren’t born in the boardrooms of CCHQ, nor cooked up in the tea rooms of Parliament – they grow organically from a passionate desire to back something. Corbyn’s Momentum arm did not begin as the Labour Party movement and whilst the two now seem on a path to convergence, its success is in spite of its closeness to the Labour HQ, not because of it.
There are positive signs. In the past week alone, I have heard of three grassroots movements set up for young Conservatives. With jazzy names like Activate, Future Britain and Tory Generation, these ground-up ideas will hopefully fill a gap in the market for young Conservatives looking for an outlet to belong too.
For a youth movement to thrive in the Conservative Party, it needs distance and trust – two things that, quite understandably, are hard for the Party to swallow. But for as long as we put our hopes of a revival of young engaged activists on a rebirth of the Young Conservatives or Conservative Future, we will be disappointed.
Of course, the issue of engaging the young is broader than the organisation of a youth wing. My generation and the generations following it react to far different messaging than before, have fundamentally different concerns and an outlook on the world that isn’t shared across the ages.
Take, for example, home ownership. Is our failure to land the messaging around Help To Buy because of the policy, or is because for many young people the idea of owning a home is so alien that Help To Buy doesn’t feel like a policy targeted at them? Would they respond better if we shouted louder about our landlord and rental market reforms, rather than talking about getting a foot on a ladder that they don’t even believe exists?
Or talking about members of the opposition and their links to the IRA. For many of the younger generation, the IRA is something so distant and unknown that, again, to do so becomes almost irrelevant.
So what do we need to do?
Research in fact shows us that millennials, contrary to popular opinion, are more right-wing than ever. Young people are more consumerist and Thatcherite – taking a harder line on the welfare state. It’s therefore a surprise that they’ve turned their backs on the Conservative Party, and voted in their droves for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.
One of the reasons is simple. Whilst Labour were offering young people an a-la-carte menu where the bill was being picked up by someone else, Theresa May was proposing a nutritious sports drink. Ultimately, the Conservative offer was better in the long term, but it was a far tougher sell, and we didn’t work to articulate to young people the need to worry about tomorrow, not just today.
The Party needs to redefine its relationship with its young members – viewing them less as leaflet fodder, and more as genuine parts of its mission – inviting their contributions in debates on policy, encouraging them more to actively advocate for the party on and offline, and pushing them to take more leadership roles in the voluntary party. For our Party’s longevity, we do need to look at repairing the ladder of opportunity inside our own Party before we can repair the countries.
But to ensure genuine, long-term engagement with the young we need something more. The Party needs to inspire grassroots movements across the country, not just London-focused or national ones, but genuine local movements of young people. And it needs to not just inspire them, it needs to tolerate them. Yes, they will make mistakes and they will disagree with the Party – but they’ll also fight for it when we need them.
One of the most passionate, most organised and most effective groups of young Conservatives I’ve met is the York Tories – a group that vehemently opposes being associated with Conservative Future. They have a number of views that can often be at odds with the Party, they take part in activities that it doesn’t always want to support but they also campaign, and in big numbers, for people they believe in.
For me, the true trick to the Conservative Party winning the youth is most certainly not for it to go out and build a youth wing. In the true spirit of conservatism, it should create a working market – and let it make it happen.