Corbyn is freaking the Tories out. Not just in the what-if-there-is-an-election-tomorrow sense. It’s far deeper: he has them flailing around, pacing circles, and asking themselves what sort of party they are. Among those Conservatives who think about things beyond Boris vs Theresa and / or DD vs Junker, Corbyn is more than sand in the ointment. He represents an existential threat.
This, at least, was my abiding sense from The Big Ideas Festival put on by the likeable and thoughtful George Freeman MP. The immediate stimulus was George seeing Mr Corbyn waving to thousands of cheering youngsters at Glastonbury, and asking himself why the left has all the fun. But the broader purpose was to bring together a couple of hundred people to think and talk about the future of centrist politics: to brainstorm ideas to make the Tories more attractive. As Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board, he also has some license to think big, and we were there to help it along.
Possibly there were some other reasons too, including Freeman’s personal ambitions, and the internal machinations of a party at war with itself. But I don’t want to get into that.
I know the Big Tent Ideas fest is ripe for sneering. I get that. And yes there were people wearing tweed, people wearing red chino trousers, a roast hog, a violinist, a notable lack of young people, women and non-White people, and 3pm proseccos. But it was an intimate event, and it was the first. And the organisers had definitely tried to open it up. Plenty of young people were speaking in one of the three large marquee tents. Labour’s Lord Adonis was peppering around events, asking on-point questions. Liam Byrne MP told the assembled they were ideologically trapped, and I heard very thoughtful ideas about universal basic income, failing drugs policy, and prison reform. I was there talking about my book Radicals. So this wasn’t an ordinary Tory talking shop. Even Alex Spence from Buzzfeed later wrote ‘it wasn’t as tragic as you think’. And it wasn’t.
Back to Corbyn. He haunted the event like a benign spirit, his influence was everywhere. His name muttered with a mix of admiration, disbelief, disgust, and fear.
First, the faithful are still trying to work out how he’d captured the youth vote so effectively. From a position of great strength, June’s snap election laid bare a Tory position of intense weakness. Young people are not voting for the Tories, and old people who do are slowly dying off. Andrew Cooper, chief at Populus, explained that the ‘crossover’ point – the age at which someone is more likely to vote Tory over Labour – is 47. Chloe Smith MP noted that too many in her party lazily assume a) young people don’t vote; and b) when they get older they will drift Tory. Neither of these things are necessarily true, she said. Both Andrew Cooper and Bim Afolami MP added that young people are unlikely to change their minds about gay marriage or feminism as they approach 50. In short, the party is in deep trouble. Robert Colvile, editor of CapX, who was present, asked soon after: Can The Tories Save Themselves from Demographic Disaster?
It gets worse. Alex Spence also pointed out that younger people consume their news on social media – where the Tories are getting a pasting. ‘We’ve been bullied off social media by Momentum’ replied one middle aged audience member. Tories – the party of law and order, the nasty party, the grey beards who get stuff done – complaining they are being bullied by a bunch of young ones on Twitter? His mother should have told him to bloody well get back on the Twitter right this moment and show those bullies you’re not scared.
I’m not sure they know what to do about this. One speaker told us that she’d heard some colleagues suggesting a Jacob Rees Mogg Snapchat filter and ‘getting in with Unilad’ (one of those many sites that trades in trendings). To be fair, this was greeted with the groans it deserved – but I can well imagine such things are being seriously discussed. A little later one older chap asked me if I thought it was possible to ‘infiltrate Momentum’ so to inject a few Tory ideas in there.
No, I replied, I don’t think that will work.
This was all related to Jez’ second haunting influence: a deep unease that he’s nice and young people like him because he’s nice and the Tories are not nice. I heard plenty of examples of how young are embarrassed to vote Tory, and how teenagers and grime artists and pop stars and activists think, after years of trying to rid themselves of the stench, the Tories have become the nasty party again.
A number of events I attended seemed to turn on this point: how do we convince people we are decent? ‘I wouldn’t mind it if people thought we were mean and we were’ one told me over an immaculately put together buffet lunch, ‘but we’re really not’. One seemed to think that it was partly Stormzy’s fault: ‘maybe they voted for him because they love Grime?’ A young colleague of mine tried to contain her laughter.
Yes, part of the problem is that the Tories aren’t cool. Sydney University conducted some research recently on ‘coolness’. It found that there are two types: ‘contrarian coolness’ (being an outsider) and ‘cachet coolness’ (being kind and compassionate). Corbyn, reckoned the research team, is helped by both.
But such things are generally beyond human machinations. If the Tories think they should focus on trying to be cool, or to imitate Jez, this would surely be a mistake. Funnily enough, while the wise old heads were worrying about being cool and grime and momentum, the under 30s present seemed to understand the problem far better.
In the morning, one young person spoke up from the back of the tent I was in (and came the obligatory, deferent silence and empty-headed nodding that accompanies older people trying to look like they are listening to the youth.) ‘This is all too much about optics’ he said. ‘I didn’t vote for you, I voted Labour. People aren’t stupid. You need the policies to show people you care: on tuition fees, on housing. What are you actually doing?’
And toward the end of the day I heard something very similar from 23 year old Reaction News Editor, Olivia Utley, talking on a panel about generation Z & Millennials. ‘Being a Tory is never going to be cool’, she said. And any effort to recreate that artificially will look utterly inauthentic and won’t work. The answer, she added, is to focus on the long game, to think up policies that match our beliefs, will work, and can appeal to people.
They were both variants on the same theme. We need big ideas that people relate to – not gimmicks that can match the Corbyn social media massacre. This marks out a future more hopeful than I’d thought, and reason enough to do it all again next year.
Toward the end of the day, as a small cluster of us discussed the events, one of the group raised an uncomfortable truth – although I suspect everyone was thinking it. Maybe you can’t be nice in power, he said. Maybe it’s easier in opposition to be the good guys. And maybe these things just go in cycles – Thatcher was kind of cool in 1978; as was Blair was in 1996; and even Cameron kind of was in 2009. Perhaps we have to lose again to re-shed the nasty party label and re-group. Not everyone agreed, but I’m not sure whether that was because they secretly worried he might be right.