As the Conservative Party slowly picks itself up off the floor after its shock defeat at the general election, serious attention is finally being paid to its seriously diminished campaigning capacity.
Yesterday we looked at how the right has failed to cultivate an equivalent to the network of well-organised third-party organisations which currently throw their weight behind Labour positions on a wide variety of issues.
But after an election in which the votes of young people – and Labour’s swollen activist base – appear to have been a decisive factor, another obvious imbalance that needs fixing is the non-existence of the Conservative youth wing.
Conservative Future was suspended – and that may still be its official status – after the suicide of Elliott Johnson and the whirlwind of scandal which engulfed ‘Road Trip’. But there is a world of difference between a pause to investigate what went wrong and simply not having an organisation for young members at all.
Let’s be quite clear: the root problem with ‘Road Trip’ was that CCHQ wasn’t sufficiently invested in young activists to organise and manage such a project itself. Instead it simply outsourced the role to the first person who offered to take it off their hands: Mark Clarke.
As my colleague Mark Wallace highlighted after the Copeland by-election, nothing has replaced the hole in the Party’s campaigning machine left by the flying columns of ‘shock troops’ pioneered by Grant Shapps. I’ve also written previously that if CCHQ don’t provide something for younger Tories then third parties will, which ought to be the last thing the they want.
But relaunching the youth wing need not, and probably should not, involve simply taking Conservative Future out of the deep freeze. Notwithstanding damage to the brand the structure didn’t make a huge amount of sense: having one organisation spanning everyone from their mid-teens to their thirties was a legacy of the 1990s, when the distinct schools, university, and young professional branches simply didn’t have enough members to be viable.
Nor should it simply be about drumming up leaflet fodder. A well-managed youth wing is an opportunity to attract, identify, train, and engage the next generation of Conservative talent, as well as provide the Party with a conduit to the attitudes and priorities of a newly-energised section of the electorate.
Having at least two organisations, supported by at least one full-time staff member in CCHQ, would allow each to better cater to the interests of their membership and create a better institutional focus on things which CF did only haphazardly, such as outreach to schools, engagement in student politics, or professional networking.
All of this would help to create a larger and more committed corps of activists at election time, which the Party could mobilise by studying the digital techniques being pioneered by the other side.
This can’t be put off. Nobody is certain when the next election will be, but few are betting on 2022. The Conservatives may only have a year or two to rebuild a semblance of a national campaigning machine, in an environment where young people are starting to flex their muscles at the ballot box.
If the ‘Tory family’ really is mobilising against Jeremy Corbyn, as our editor suggests, then we need its younger members more than ever.