by Jack Elsom
I was never much of a ‘CFer’. When I first realised that I was in the Conservative crowd, I was advised to go along to my local branch on the Isle of Wight to see what it was all about. In short, there were five of us sat in a dingy room – the ‘executive committee’ and me, the shy newbie – where they spent over an hour deliberating on a date for their fundraising candy-floss sale, or something like that. With less than a month to go before the GE2015, I was expecting to be discussing canvassing strategy or perhaps how we’d best mobilise our members, not debating the perks of selling sweets on a Monday as oppose to a Sunday. Although myself and CF did not start on the best of foots, I am a firm believer that the party needs a youth-wing and an optimistic about the future. With Conservative Future’s review process currently taking place, I thought I’d highlight what I see as some structural flaws in the organisation and what should be the priorities moving forward.
The first, and hopefully most obvious revamping, should be to reconsider the age bracket of the youth movement’s members. When the CF executive were booted out and replaced by the interim leader, Baroness Chisholm, people found it awfully funny how the new youth-wing chair was a not so youthful 64 years old. Yet, it seemed to me that these comedians had been a bit tardy in spotting this irony. After all, Conservative Future has failed to be a youth-orientated organisation for years. One need only look at the ages of past CF chairpeople; Mark Clarke, for example, held the post when he was 30! The clue’s in the name – it’s a youth movement.
However, this is not a case of changing the age intake solely to conform with its own description; there is a more important reason to facilitate the change. The suspension of CF was not called on a whim, but was forced by a much darker backdrop. Last winter, when the youth-wing was blemished with stories of bullying, sex-scandals and blackmail, the need to squeeze the more aged end of Conservative Future became more apparent to me. This ugly behaviour should have no place in politics, however, what is intolerable is that it has been taking place in an organisation whose function is to engage youngsters in Tory activism. Many CFers are young teenagers who should never be exposed to this kind of conduct nor represented by those who engage in it. Now, don’t get me wrong, the majority of people I met in my brief involvements with CF were thoroughly decent people, including many of the older blues. Yet, I sense that some of the older members of CF felt as though they were far superior to younger ones and, despicably, even sometimes tried to intimidate or bully them, as reported by BBC Newsnight.
The main aim of any new youth-wing should be to buoy youngsters into Conservative politics, and, unfortunately, I do not think that this is going to be achieved fully while we have mature adults involved. Many real youth feel alienated from the cosy clique of adults at the top, and, to be frank, if you’re 26 you probably won’t have the same concerns and policy initiatives as someone who is 16. I recognise whole-heartedly the commitment of activists who I campaign alongside, whatever their age, however, I think that we need to ask ourselves some very hard questions when considering the new format of of party’s youth-wing.
With this in mind, I would probably be tempted to cap the age limit at 22/23. Originally, I thought 18 would be better, but it’d probably be best to have the majority of undergraduates involved, as university associations can often heavily bolster a local branches’ activities. I would also be very keen to see more 16/17/18 year olds taking a more active role in the running of a fresh Conservative Future in addition to school and college outreach programmes run by university associations. The latter is something which my committee and I will be pursuing in the next academic year. I also urge any new Conservative Future programme to try to stray from purely echoing Tory Party rhetoric. While of course the majority of government initiatives we will most likely agree with, (hence why we’re in the Party!), policies should always be on the table for debate, and scrutiny from the youth of the party would be healthy in ensuring fresh ideas are always being circulated. Mechanisms to realise this could be in the form of intra-branch debates or policy forums.
In short, Conservative Future needs to shift from being the backyard brawl among senior members which it has been for so long and actually become the main instrument of youth engagement within the Conservative Party and, potentially, in UK politics.
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