Jake Sargent is Chairman of Warwick University Conservatives.
Having read ConservativeHome’s reports on what is expected to be a bigger grassroots presence at conference, I agree that it is certainly going to be interesting.
But for me, the excitement comes not from potential leadership candidates, or even from the increasing number of opportunities for members to engage. I am excited because the University of Warwick Conservative Association are bringing over 30 members.
We had a record-breaking year last year, and this year we have twice as many members attending. The reasons for this lie in the current state of both national and student politics, and how we have tried to adapt to it.
The traditional challenges to recruiting new members on campus remain. Students’ unions remain militant and, thanks to staggeringly low numbers of voters (quoracy to pass changes can be as low as two per cent) it still remains under the control of the left. However, we have made progress, and this year we have a Tory sabbatical officer. Similarly, university lecturers are still disproportionately anti-conservative.
However, the Union is not the only challenge. Given a potent combination of Corbyn’s attempts to woo younger voters with a message of change and the huge use of social media (which the national party is now doing well) it is hard to attract members who see the party you stand for as one which is against their wishes. This, combined with the fashion of supporting Corbyn’s Labour, lead many to attempt to shame us. At last year’s Fresher’s Fair, myself and the previous Chairman were personally accused of killing babies due to our involvement with the Tories.
However, many of the challenges we face we have brought on ourselves. There is a certain stereotype of a young Conservative that is still too prevalent. As far as our membership is concerned, this couldn’t be further from the truth. However, the myth remains, and the only way to challenge it is to show who we are and be highly visible on campus.
This brings me to the double-edged sword that is ‘Free Speech’. Warwick again last year received a red ranking for freedom of speech. We have had to fill out extra security questionnaires for some Tory MPs who have never themselves said anything remotely controversial. We have however turned this to our advantage.
Recently, our Labour equivalent on campus elected a Chairman who ran on the platform of purging the ‘Tories and Blairites from their movement’. Immediately, we invited all those who felt unwelcome in Labour to our events. Not just our socials, but our speaker events and our debates, embracing the Conservative principle of free speech. This not only swelled our numbers, it enriched our own debate, whilst allowing those who have lost the opportunity to debate to join ours.
This gathered momentum to the extent that when we hosted Jacob Rees-Mogg just before Easter, of the almost 200 attendees (all of whom were paid up members of our Association) a large contingent, roughly a quarter, were members of other political parties. This allowed for genuine debate, far removed from the mollycoddled nazel-gaving of the current University system, and a few people became Tories on the back of it. Students come for the big names and stay for the socials.
But our growth comes not just through embracing and welcoming others. We are very fortunate to have a strong Committee, with clearly defined roles. I and two events secretaries have already booked about 20 speakers for the next year from a pool of MPs, MEPs, journalists, and think tanks, having sent in excess of 100 invitations.
Our two social secretaries have already planned a comprehensive programme of socials, including a packed two-week calendar for freshers, followed by a minimum of two events a week, every week until exams begin in May 2019. We are planning a domestic and foreign tour to build a camaraderie beyond the remit of politics. We are active on social media, simply because you have to be, and the national Party is also helping by providing merchandise and speakers.
But we do this because our raison d’être is to ensure Conservatives get elected. An often-forgotten point is that we don’t attract members who immediately want to canvass. We attract members to speaker events and socials who go on to become brilliant activists.
As such, many of us have got involved with the numerous local associations that surround the university. I am Deputy Chairman (Political) of Warwick and Leamington (a key marginal); we also work with Coventry, Nuneaton, Redditch, and further afield. This gives our members different areas to canvass and different ways of getting involved – we are currently working on some members standing in the Warwick District Council elections next May.
The fact that all of these associations have welcomed us with open arms is a huge part of our success on campus. Obviously, they benefit too. At the May elections this year, we had about 35 students out from dawn raids until the end of counts, spread across Nuneaton, Coventry, and Leamington Spa.
It is for these reasons, and many more, that I am excited for Conference. The fringe events, with rigorous discussion, debate and challenging of ideas are very popular with our members, not unsurprising given the attempted strangling of debate on campus.
Overall, as an Association we are stronger than ever. Challenges which once seemed insurmountable are now tackled through hard work and determination. Our strength helps those around us and it could be argued has given Warwick and Leamington a significant strength that was missing in 2017. By broadening our appeal, staying relevant, both being on message without constantly being political, we have been able to navigate our way through the last couple of years by growing; not merely surviving, but thriving. Long may it continue.