Conservatives urged to reinstate youth wing despite past scandals
Pickles recommends push to train younger Tories
Previous groups disbanded after embarrassing party
The Conservatives need to re-establish their youth wing – which was shut down in the wake of a bullying scandal – as part of attempts to re-engage with younger voters, according to an official review of the party’s disastrous general election result.
The party will consider investing in bursaries and training colleges to give young Conservatives the debating, speaking and writing skills they need for a career in politics, after realising many older MPs benefited from such help in the past.
The review, conducted by Sir Eric Pickles, the former party chairman and communities secretary, will suggest reviving a group for young Tories when it makes more than 60 recommendations, the Guardian has learned.
Pickles presented a preview of his findings to a meeting of Conservative MPs on the backbench 1922 committee this week, amid anxiety within the party about the high level of support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour among the under-40s. He said he believed a youth wing was necessary as the Conservatives tried to build a mass membership movement again to rival Labour, which has 500,000 members.
The Conservatives have had a variety of youth wings over the years but twice had to shut them down in the face of concern about some of their activities.
However, one MP who was present said Pickles told the meeting that “young people say silly things, and he certainly did when he was young”, but that was not a reason to avoid having a youth movement. Pickles said the idea was to invigorate and enthuse young people to go out and sell the Conservative message, whether that was chatting in the pub or delivering leaflets, and it needed to seem like an exciting thing to do.
The Tory MP James Duddridge, a former minister, said he approved of the idea of a new youth wing. “I joined the Conservative party when I was 19 – it was cheap to go to conference; I worked for the party and I went on training courses which helped develop my Conservatism,” he said.
“We need to revitalise a new generation of people that will do the thinking for the Conservative party, as well as selling the message and the feet-on-the-ground work. We need a new youth wing of the Conservative party that will take us forward not just until the next general election but for the next 50 years.”
Pickles has previously addressed the Young Britons’ Foundation, a rightwing group that used to train Tory parliamentary candidates and was described by its founder as a “Tory madrasa”, but David Cameron distanced himself from the organisation in 2010. The former Tory leader William Hague abolished the Young Conservatives in 1998 after members caused embarrassment with extreme rightwing policies and drunken balls. Its successor, Conservative Future, was wrapped up in 2015 after it was linked to a bullying scandal and the suicide of a young activist, Elliott Johnson. More recently, an activist-led attempt was made to form a Tory youth wing called Activate to rival Momentum, the group of grassroots Corbyn supporters. Activate has already had to apologise after some young people linked to the group engaged in a WhatsApp chat talking about “gassing chavs”. The former Tory MP Ben Howlett, who led the Conservative Future group until 2013, said there should be no repeat of events that led to the group being shut down after he left and that would be avoidable with “stringent governance and protections”. He said reforming the youth wing was a good idea and could help the party deliver a “message of hope” again. “If there is a recommendation to revive the youth wing, it’s a good recommendation,” he said. “But I will fall back on what I said in 2013 when leaving Conservative Future: what does an 18-year-old have in common with a 35-year-old? There could be one group stopping at around 25 and another one for young professionals for development and potentially training them to be candidates and activists.”
The Conservative party conference in Manchester next month is likely to be dominated by hand-wringing over what went wrong at the election that led Theresa May to lose her majority and speculation about her future.
Grant Shapps, the former Conservative co-chairman, has previously warned that the party was outgunned on the ground in the June campaign after having had a high degree of activist organisation in 2015.
“This time, we seemed to unlearn the lessons from 2010 that led to the successful 2015 campaign,” he said. “We did not rebuild a ground team and it was a tragic mistake. We already had a ground force like Momentum and we let it go. There was also a lack of understanding that real people posting on social media are worth 10 times a paid advert. The result we had was partly due to not putting those key parts of the ground campaign in place.”
‘We need to revitalise a new generation that will do the thinking’ MP James Duddridge
Young Conservatives at the 1998 conference before the group was axed by William Hague