It is easy to mock youthful conservative activists when their attempts at social media outreach go awry, but at least they are trying – none of the supposed adults in the Conservative Party seem remotely interested in salvaging conservatism’s toxic reputation among younger voters
The media has been having a lot of fun today at the expense of an organisation called Activate, a newly-launched independent conservative campaign group of young people, by young people and for young people.
Some of this criticism has been justified – the launch on social media was uncoordinated and the messaging…suboptimal, at best. One could certainly argue that Activate tried to run before it could walk, entering the political fray before the values and priorities of the group had been fully defined and agreed.
(Full disclosure: I was very tangentially involved in the pre-formation of this group earlier in the summer, participating in several group chats and offering occasional words of advice. This was in line with my strong belief – stated many, many, many, many times – that British conservatism will die out unless it urgently finds a way to reach and inspire younger voters with a positive message).
Inevitably, the reviews have not been kind, with outlets from the Independent, New Statesman, The Spectator, Huffington Post, Political Scrapbook, Red Pepper and Esquire all forming an orderly queue to mock the group and question its grassroots bona fides.
The Guardian was actually one of the kindest:
A new Conservative grassroots campaign inspired by Labour’s Momentum movement will attempt to engage more young people in rightwing politics, though the group’s launch has been widely mocked on social media.
Activate, which aims to “engage young people with conservatism”, has close links with senior party activists, and is chaired by former Tory campaign manager Gary Markwell, a councillor in West Sussex. A Conservative spokesman said Activate was “not officially linked to the Conservatives and it receives no party funding”.
The group’s constitution says it will be independent from the party, though all members are expected to be members of the main party.
The campaigning group launched with a Twitter picture of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, followed by a picture of Star Wars character Admiral Ackbar, saying “It’s a trap”.
The group’s use of multiple hashtags and a meme that was last popular in the early 2000s led to widespread derision on the social network.
Somewhat cringeworthy? Of course. Not what I would have done or recommended. But you can look at this two ways.
On one hand, you can take the attitude of the scornful left-wing press (and even some of the right-wing blogs like Guido Fawkes) and make fun of Activate’s enthusiastic but undeniably amateurish initial foray into grassroots political campaigning. And indeed, many journalists and commentators have been only too happy to mock the sincere efforts of 17-year-old students who at least take the time to educate themselves about political issues and live up to their responsibility to be good engaged citizens. That is certainly one approach, albeit a rather cynical one.
But the other attitude – a far more constructive one – is to ask why the hell it is being left to a group of enthusiastic but inexperienced teenage and twenty-something activists to do what the Conservative Party should have been doing all along, namely trying to engage in meaningful outreach to sceptical younger voters.
Recall: Theresa May’s brilliantly inspired general election campaign saw the Tories lose the 18-19 year old first time voter demographic by a margin of 47 points. The Conservative Party is getting nowhere with young people and struggling with nearly everyone else because they cannot clearly articulate what they stand for and simply offer a bland, repetitive, uninspiring and entirely defensive message.
With no positive message to rally around, no formal conservative youth movement and national party leadership totally devoid of charisma, the combined forces of present-day young conservative activists could probably all fit comfortably within a League One football stadium, with room to spare. Unfortunately, people who unironically wear bow ties and read economics at Cambridge are pretty much all we have right now in terms of boots on the ground – would that it were otherwise. But at least Activate is trying to expand the appeal of conservatism.
Maybe rather than mocking the earnest sixth-former wearing a bow tie in his bio picture, the likes of Guido Fawkes should instead be asking why it has been left to young kids like this to take all the initiative of creating a grassroots youth conservative movement on their own, with almost no help from senior Tories, party grandees, external think tanks or anybody else with abundant time, money and influence.
Maybe they should ask what possible excuse party leader Theresa May and her CCHQ cronies can offer for falling down on the youth outreach job so spectacularly. Maybe they should try holding the prime minister to account for swanning off to Italy after having presided after this disaster of an election campaign rather than staying put to undo a small fraction of the damage that she has done to the Conservative brand.
Maybe the likes of the IEA, Adam Smith Institute and Centre for Policy Studies should be a little more concerned about where their pipeline of future fellows and supposed thinkers will possibly come from when nearly every young person in the country hates the Tories with the burning heat of a thousand suns, and retains that hatred well into middle age. Kate Andrews is great, and a breath of fresh air on Question Time, but there is a limit to the number of articulate young conservative thinkers we can import from the United States. At some point we will have to develop some more homegrown talent.
But no. Rather than engaging in the slightest bit of introspection, too many conservative voices seem content to continue writing their asinine hot takes about the daily developments in the Brexit negotiations, speculating pointlessly about the next Tory leadership contest or simply getting drunk on Pimms and having Jacob Rees-Mogg’s face tattooed on their chests. Because summer silly season nonsense is so much more fun than tending to the existential question of who will keep the flame of conservatism lit when its present custodians are no more.
Maybe Activate did make a really bad start to their campaign. Maybe their name lends itself too easily to mockery. Maybe their logo wasn’t produced by the best graphic designers that money can buy. Maybe their initial foray into social media was more worthy of a Jacob Rees-Mogg fanclub than a serious political entity. But everything they have done thus far, they accomplished without a scintilla of help from anybody else in the British conservative movement. Contra much of the leftist press, this really is an unaffiliated grassroots movement.
Faced with the immense tarnishing of the conservative brand and reputation among young voters inflicted by Theresa May, her Cabinet and all the other supposed adults in the room, a group of sincere and well-meaning young conservative activists stepped up at a time when our elected conservative politicians have effectively fled the field of battle. That counts for something, and deserves acknowledgement.
Activate received no help from from the increasingly unworthy political party that bears the conservative name, and certainly no help from the constellation of think tanks, institutions, media outlets or commentators who think themselves so well-connected and influential. Unlike Momentum on the political Left, Activate has no prominent champions in the wider conservative movement, no real mentors (so critical to getting a youth organisation off the ground) and no funding that I am aware of. If anything is embarrassing, it isn’t a dated Star Wars meme on Twitter – it’s the fact that besides these well-meaning if sometimes naive people, nobody else is even making an effort.
It is time to face a number of difficult truths. Conservatism as an ideology and a political movement is radioactive to the majority of today’s young people. We are in retreat in schools, on the university campus, in the world of the arts, in the laboratories, in popular culture and the media, not to mention the House of Commons. And our inability to connect with younger voters and inspire them with a positive message about how conservative values and policies will benefit them and benefit the country is arguably the biggest threat that we face.
Faced with this shameful lack of leadership from anybody in Westminster, Activate is at least trying to do something to face up to these threats and begin tackling conservatism’s huge deficit of trust and inspiration among young voters.
And that is vastly more than can be said of all those people who spent today laughing smugly at their struggle.
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