Con­ser­va­tives urged to re­in­state youth wing de­spite past scan­dals

Pick­les rec­om­mends push to train younger Tories

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Rowena Ma­son Deputy po­lit­i­cal ed­i­tor

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

Pho­to­graph: Dy­lan Martinez/Reuters

Young Con­ser­va­tives at the 1998 con­fer­ence be­fore the group was axed by Wil­liam Hague

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