Jock McMillan is a student at University College London.
Wesminster’s recent sex scandals taught us a lot about inappropriate carry-on by politicians. But another socially unacceptable form of behaviour is receiving far too little attention right now: being a young Conservative. Judging from the reaction of my peers when I confess to being a member of this exclusive set, you’d think I was guilty of a perversion worthy of the so-called spreadsheet of shame. Being a teenager and being a Tory is seen as some sort of aberration, and whenever I own up, I know they’re thinking I’m a fascist, racist, homophobic, or something worse.
If this party is to have any prospect of victory at the next general election, we must confront this challenge head on. It is time for the Conservatives to get serious about matching Momentum’s success in appealing to the youth vote. And the starting-point must be social media.
Weird at it may seem to other 18-year olds, I’m passionate about being a Tory. But on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media platforms, the party and MPs which represent my beliefs give me little of which to be proud.
For anyone with a mobile phone, it’s not rocket science to see why the Conservative Party is a decade behind in engaging people of my age. The absence of regular Tweets by high-profile Tory figures; the party’s bland Instagram page; that Greg Knight video; all illustrate why it’s no surprise that Corbyn is currently monopolising the youth vote, and is master of online networks.
Since the general election, there have been a few signs of improvement. Jeremy Hunt is surprisingly sassy on Twitter, while the infamous ‘cough’ Tweet which went viral following the prime minister’s disastrous party conference speech shows someone, somewhere, in Number10, does have the ability to do this when the ordure is really hitting the fan and they can be bothered.
Yet the party has a long way to go just to persuade young people that it’s okay to vote Tory – let alone to convince them to actively campaign for the party.
At the heart of the problem is the bizarre failure on the part of individual Tory councillors and MPs, as well as the entire party machine, to grasp the importance of social media to anyone under the age of 30.
Julien Brazier knows this to his cost. The veteran MP, who held his previously safe Canterbury seat for 30 years before being unceremoniously ousted in May’s snap election, saw his 10,000 majority swept away following the registration of 8,000 pro-Corbyn students in his constituency. During the election campaign, his own social media profile was sporadic, bland and totally unengaging. By contrast, the Labour candidate, Rosie Duffield, maxed it out, using a variety of platforms to spread her local message to mobilise a generation of previously disinterested students.
Having witnessed this gaping hole in our campaign strategy in the run up to June 2017– the first election at which I have been old enough to vote – and the devastating consequences of our lost majority, I decided to do a little research into the scale of the problem.
I wanted to see how many Conservative MPs are making an effort to draw in young voters on social media – and how that compares with the Labour Party.
This was a quantitative exercise: I did not attempt to evaluate the quality of content posted by either party. That’s a much bigger question, which I very much hope is being explored by the party machine. What I was looking at was simply how many MPs use social media at all.
The results of my little investigation were deeply worrying, fully reinforcing my view that the Conservative Party will lose generations of young voters until we get our act together.
My scan of social media focussed solely on Twitter and Facebook accounts of MPs. I looked at whether they existed, and if so, whether they were active or inactive.
The answer was that out of 317 Conservative MPs, 50 have no active social media profile (Twitter or Facebook) at all. Effectively, therefore, almost one sixth of the parliamentary party have no contact with young people beyond email; knocking on doors and old fashioned letters through the postbox. By contrast, only eight Labour MPs have no social media profiles.
Looking at Twitter specifically, more than a quarter of Tory MPs have inactive accounts, while over a third are inactive on Facebook. The figures for Labour are six per cent and 14 per cent respectively – much more impressive.
No wonder, then, that the narrative online is predominantly controlled by Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum as a barrage of Tweets and Facebook posts by left-wingers batter their way into the consciences of young people. Even if the message, tone and content of the Conservatives’ online campaigning – such as it is – absolutely hit the spot for young people (which it certainly doesn’t), that message is barely being heard. Social media dominates the lives of my generation, and we are not even on the pitch.
All too late, following the general election, we are waking up to the need to devise policies that will appeal to younger voters. No amount of worth initatives, whether it’s freezing tuition fees, or pledging to build a million new homes by 2020, will make an iota of difference, if young people don’t even know that they exist.
Meanwhile, perhaps even more worryingly, we seem to have given Labour exclusive occupation of the moral highground on social media. The narrative on the Twitter feeds of the under 30s seems to be dominated by the injustices of Universal Credit or the unfairness of the capitalist system, as the party which peddles these lies monopolises the online message.
As the author of that notorious phrase, Theresa May, of all people, should be seriously worried that a whole new generation of voters still think the Tories are the “nasty party.” I despair that the only way young people will ever learn to follow and support the Conservatives is if they actually hear the party’s message. Right now, that feels like a woefully distant prospect. If we do not confront this head on, right now, we will soon be forced to deal with Corbyn’s terrifying political agenda in more than just 140 characters.