— Tom Harwood (@tomhfh) 6 December 2017
Last December, Tom Harwood, a politics student at Durham, pledged to defeat ISIS by means of NUS boycotts, and to construct a 217-foot statue of NUS President Malia Bouattia on top of Durham Cathedral, so people can see “how vitally important she is to us”.
He also told potential supporters on his campaign video, “I pledge to make sweeping agrarian reform a national priority.”
These promises formed an enjoyable send-up of the usual NUS campaign, which consists of pledges to carry out actions far beyond the powers of any student politician.
And in Durham, a university more susceptible than most to such reactionary jokes, they were sufficient to get Harwood elected as a delegate to the NUS conference, on an exceptionally high turnout of 10.7 per cent.
Slightly more noticeably, as far as the wider world was concerned, the video helped launch Harwood as a media performer, who has appeared on the BBC, Sky, ITN, LBC and Three Counties Radio, among many other outlets.
For here was an articulate student who was unafraid, indeed eager, to declare the NUS “a ridiculous organisation”. He became a useful way of spicing up whatever modest degree of coverage that organisation may receive, usually after it has adopted some stance which can be attacked as ridiculous or disreputable.
This month, Harwood returned to the attack, with another video (see above) in which he points out, in a triumphant tone, that “ISIS is in retreat”; claims the scaffolding which is visible on the top of Durham Cathedral conceals the construction work which has begun on the statue; and also declares: “Don’t worry – sweeping agrarian reform is still one of my top priorities.”
On Wednesday he announced on his Twitter feed that he has again been elected as a Durham delegate at the NUS conference, and a few days ago Nick Boles tweeted: “Put this man in charge of @Conservatives digital campaigning!”
It is certainly true that the Conservative Party’s digital campaigning leaves much to be desired, and would benefit from the sparky irreverence displayed by Harwood.
He has considerable experience as a campaigner, having chaired the student arm of the national Vote Leave campaign, and as a debater, having gained election as president of the Durham Union.
While still at the Perse School in Cambridge, we find him praised for the “impassioned closing statement” he gave in a mock trial competition at Cambridge Crown Court.
When he stood earlier this year for the presidency of the NUS – a post once held by such luminaries as Jack Straw, Charles Clarke, Trevor Phillips and David Aaronovitch – he received only 35 votes from delegates, compared to 272 for Bouattia, who suffered from repeated allegations of anti-semitism, and 402 for the winner, Shakira Martin.
This suggests there were only 35 Conservatives at the conference where the vote took place. Harwood was about a decade younger than the two women who beat him, and a newcomer.
His declared aim – a laudable one – was to shame the NUS into reforming itself. But to combine satire with politics is difficult. The greatest satirists – one thinks of the late Michael Wharton, author for several decades of the Peter Simple column in the Daily Telegraph – have no political ambitions.
And anyone like Harwood who, while still a student, manages by an audacious performance to attract national media coverage, is bound to irritate quite a few of his or her contemporaries, and may find the early publicity hard to live down. William Hague was for many years known as the precocious schoolboy who at the age of 16 had delivered a well-received speech to the Conservative Conference.
On Sunday, Nick Denys wrote on this site about the contribution made by Momentum to Labour’s general election campaign, including the provision of large numbers of foot-soldiers, and the development of a social media presence far greater than anything the Conservatives achieved.
But the idea that the Conservative response can simply consist of aping Momentum had in August been exploded by none other than Harwood, also writing on this site. He pointed out that Momentum “was born out of a successful and transformative leadership campaign and already had a base of loyal and ideologically driven people”, and went on:
“Any engaging Conservative movement would need to see itself in its own right, and not simply as an answer to the Labour Party. To this end the problem the Conservative Party faces is not so much a lack of structures, but a lack of vision. Once we recapture a vision of what this country can be, once we have a path and can see light at the end of it, all else will be able to flow from that.
“For any campaign groups that spring up to be successful, they must stand for something. It’s hard to engage people to fight for eternal compromise. To this end, the real saving grace of the Conservative Party has to come from rediscovering our soul and our mission. If the Prime Minister wants to set the party on the best possible footing to win the next election, she should consider promoting potential leadership figures who can offer competing visions of the future, and let the best vision win. Young people won’t flock to the party just because we have better graphics, young people will come when we offer solutions.”
A generation ago, one might add, conservative or even Conservative tendencies were often encouraged not long after starting work by the act of buying a house. Paying the mortgage was a burden, but obliged one to settle down and become a responsible member of society.
For many people in their twenties, that option no longer exists. Their earnings are consumed in paying rent. So why not give up the job and go travelling for a year instead?
Or why not join Momentum – a curious and probably not very durable alliance between elderly Bennites (to put it politely) and young people who want a different kind of world.
Social media offer a tantalising chance to communicate directly with these young idealists. But it is necessary to have something to say. And as John Rentoul noted on Saturday, there are still Conservatives who can find something to say:
“Michael Gove still wants to be prime minister. We know this because this week he supported the reintroduction of beavers in the wild in England. He knows that one of the most important but least reported issues that did for the Conservatives at the election was animal rights.
“For many consumers of social media, the big election issues were not Brexit, or Theresa May’s mechanical personality, or her dementia tax, or Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to abolish tuition fees. They were worked up about May’s support for fox hunting and her failure to mention a ban on ivory sales in her manifesto.”
Harwood has been good at drawing attention to the absurdities of the NUS. But to beat Labour at the next election, it will not be enough to draw attention to the absurdities of Corbyn and his supporters.
David Cameron recognised the need for Conservatives to offer something more satisfying and constructive than a critique of socialism. His notion of “the Big Society” never quite met that need, though many of the things his coalition government actually did were admirable, as Oliver Letwin demonstrates in his recent book Hearts and Minds.
But one of Cameron’s most signal services to the party was to recruit in the decade from 2005 to 2015 a large number of gifted parliamentary candidates. They are now making names for themselves at Westminster, and must not hesitate, if the party is to renew itself while in office and discover worthwhile things to say on social media, to lay out their competing visions of the future.