Around 100,000. That’s how many members the UK Conservative Party has now. Around, because CCHQ hasn’t published any data on membership for the last four years. In 2013, after much pressure from Conservative Home, the party reluctantly revealed that membership was at 134,000 – about half the number that had voted for Cameron in 2005. Since then, there has been radio silence, but estimates, based on figures from large Tory Heartland areas, suggest that the party is now flirting with the six-figure line. As Labour brags about its soaring membership – now at over half a million – the Conservative Party is genteelly managing a steady decline.
The problem, of course, is that the old guard are dying off and there aren’t enough young people to replace them. The failure of Britain’s governing political party to appeal to young people has been an obsession at this year’s conference, especially after the right-wing Bow Group think-tank estimated the average age of a Conservative member is now 72. Politicians and think-tankers everywhere are miserably lamenting how “uncool” it is to be a Conservative and are desperately hunting around for new ways of attracting the next generation.
Put yourself, for a moment, into the mind of an 18-year-old just starting at university and it becomes clear why it’s such an uphill struggle.
You take an interest in current affairs and decide to read up on the history of socialism. You conclude that it doesn’t work, and decide that capitalism and the free market is the best model for a “country that works for everyone”.
You affiliate with the Conservative Party, and decide that you want to join.
Immediately, you are putting yourself in a horribly unpopular minority. Statistically, it’s almost certain that nearly all your friends will disagree with you, and a few of them might well feel the need to go to safe spaces where they can get away from your triggering views. On top of that, your lecturers are exclusively left-wing, and you’re pretty certain that their opinions on your opinions will colour the marking of your essays. You’re also opening the floodgates for abuse on social media, and quite possibly abuse on the streets if ever you have the gall to defend your views in public.
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You decide that being a Conservative Party member is worth the stigma, and come to Conservative Party Conference bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, longing to meet like-minded people who will take you and you and your views seriously.
But when you arrive, having spent a good chunk of your student loan for the month on a ticket and accommodation, all you hear is that “young people hate Conservatives” and “the party is so uncool we can’t use the word “cool” anymore”.
You, it seems, don’t count as a cool young person.
Young Conservatives are most certainly an endangered breed, they are not yet extinct. At every fringe event I’ve attended, there’s been a decent smattering of students, and they all seem bright, interested, and keen to get more involved. But they are treated like second class citizens. Like the phone company which offers shiny new deals to new customers while ignoring the existing ones, the party is tossing aside its loyal students in a bid to find “cooler” ones.
In the battle against Momentum, every young person counts. The young Conservatives who have turned up to party conference this year may be tweedy and eccentric and, it’s true, they’re probably shunned by the cool group at uni. But they have volunteered themselves as social pariahs in order to be part of a party which is offering them very little, and is falling apart at the seams. And, if the Conservative party wants to retain any members at all, that sort of loyalty should be taken seriously.