By Russell White
The Young Conservatives are an enigma to many people — often mentioned but seldom understood. Before joining the Third Way I was, I must confess, a Young Conservative. I therefore have first hand experience of the organisation and its members (some of whom I still meet socially).
They generally fall within several identifiable categories. “Social” members are those quite willing to attend events such as discos, night outs and quiz nights, but are not particularly keen on campaigning. Some of them never canvass or deliver leaflets. The second type is perhaps more familiar to members of Third Way, the activist. They campaign when and where possible and attend meetings and conferences on a regular basis. Third there is the all-rounder who is equally at home on the dance-floor as on the speakers’ rostrum. Most of these become Branch chairman!
There was an element of truth when comedian Tony Hancock described the YCs as a dating agency. Most YCs meet their future partners through the organisation. After marriage most cease to be active. A small percentage then re-emerge as councillors and prospective parliamentary candidates. They usually maintain a fairly close contact with the organisation as Branch or Area Presidents.
In the past there was a division between younger and senior members over policy — the YCs being more “Thatcherite” in outlook. Some YCs were interested in policy areas such as immigration and capital punishment, whereas others were more concerned with lower taxation and privitisation.
In greater London they were divided between “wet” (pro-Europe, anti-privitisation and leftish on social policy) and “sound” (opposed to the wet beliefs). There was a general consensus in favour of Party policy on the miners’ strike (which had finished when I joined in 1987), the poll tax and defence.
Attitudes towards the leadership when Michael Heseltine made his challenge were still heavily pro-Thatcher, and remained so after she was defeated. Few cared to admit support for Heseltine, despite his following amongst older party members. A poll on the eve of the first leadership ballot in the West Lewisham Association showed an even split between the two candidates with the local YC Branch supporting Mrs Thatcher. Even now a division remains, with YCs pro-Redwood and seniors pro-Major.
Despite all the traits mentioned above the organisation was and is remarkably efficient. Many senior party members are elderly, and the middle aged ones seldom have time to spare. It therefore falls to the YCs to provide the leg-work at election time. I saw this at first hand. I recall travelling to Pontypridd for a by-election and visiting Chepstow. At first sight it seemed archetypal Tory territory, but I could sense the hostility towards us. I also stood as a Conservative candidate for St. Andrew’s Ward (in Catford, London). The Poll Tax was enough to scupper our chances of winning there.
The YC’s were set up shortly after World War Two, in their present form. Membership peaked in the 1950s. It was considered almost second nature for young middle class people to join and meet their future husband or wife there. Parents supported the organisation too, seeing it as a “safety valve”. They were pleased that their children were mixing in a controlled and supervised environment with people “of the same background”. This was in the era, remember, before Elvis or the Beatles and before the term “teenager” was coined.
Branches were large, operating on a Council Ward basis in some areas. Today most Parliamentary Constituency Conservative Associations haven’t even got a YC Branch in existence… this is hardly surprising given the political climate. There is even more stigma attached to being a YC than an “old” Conservative!
I remember well the embarrassment I felt trying to sell policies on the doorstep which no rational person could support especially the effects of rising interest rates. I recall also how many YCs became disillusioned after the fall of Margaret Thatcher.
The YCs are a way of life for many of those involved, and it is easy to lose a sense of political reality if socially you mix only with other members. Hence the organisation contains those who advocate the privitisation of the National Health Service and are incapable of understanding why this is unpopular.
So what future for a youth organisation which has become marginalised from the senior Party and from the wider youth culture as well? The answer is obvious. The Young Conservatives will continue to shrink in size until it is effectively only a name.
In some ways the fate of the YCs is the result of a more general de-politicisation of youth culture and young people. Where young people are involved in politics it tends to be issue rather than party based (the anti-road and animal-rights campaigns spring to mind). Success bred success in the past; a newcomer would find a room packed with like-minded people. Few would now assume that a new recruit would attend a second meeting without considerable coaxing.
Now the average attendance at meetings is likely to be between five and eight. In practice many YCs join multiple branches to boost numbers, and to create bogus branches for voting purposes. In the latter case where there were fewer than the required ten paid-up YCs others could create a Branch to vote in National and Area YC elections. This is a warning to be heeded for a Third Way youth section. We must ensure that it has no separate voting structure and is fully integrated into the main party.
We all looked inward, and did not realise how insignificant our actions were in the scheme of things. Internal elections provided excitement and were often hard-fought and acrimonious affairs. In my own Area, South East London, the centre of gravity for the YCs was Orpington. This was the biggest Branch and had the most well attended social events. Geographically, however, it was the most difficult to get to. For Branch Chairmen, ownership of a car in which lukewarm supporters could be chauffered about in was seen as essential.
What type of person joins the Young Conservatives? In my experience most see themselves as a cut above others of their age, and are generally ambitious. They see everything in terms of money or status. Green values have little appeal for them as they tend to be car orientated and work in financial/property services. I cannot remember meeting any manual workers in the YCs, and few lived in rented accommodation (whether council or private). Most were members of only the YCs and no other Tory organisations. Their shallow conversation consisted in the main of running-down other members (especially Chairmen). Actual politics was seen as a taboo subject by some!
The YCs are unlikely to recover from their malaise. In the inner cities they are already dead. The lack of political activity amongst young people will continue until two conditions come into effect. First, something must affect them so deeply that they feel compelled to take action. Second, an organisation capable of marshalling their enthusiasm and energy must be in readiness. The first condition is difficult to predict. There is however much we can do in respect of the second. The Third Way must work to establish a Youth Network capable of rivalling the old YCs in terms of its commitment and strength. We must also learn from the failures of the modern YCs, in order to create a successful model.
How could we ensure that the YCs mistakes are not repeated by a Third Way Youth Network?
New members must be kept involved and active by charting the progress of different events and meetings. Those who are irregular attendees must be kept in touch.
All youth publications should be carefully monitored to prevent any displays of “immaturity”.
A sister organisation should be set up for those who had outgrown the Youth Network but who wanted to keep in touch. For those with children, facilities must be provided — creches, childminding rosters etc. We would also need to organise some events particularly suited to families.
I hope that this article will help us towards recognising this political necessity, and assist in the creation of our strategy.