Tory review calls for new youth wing to counter Corbyn's appeal

Eric Pickles review recommendations to include engaging more with young people after Labour surge cost Tories in election

The Conservative party needs to re-establish its youth wing, which was shut down after a bullying scandal, as part of its attempts to engage with younger voters, according to an official review of the election result.

The review, conducted by the former Tory chairman Sir Eric Pickles, will suggest reviving a group for young Conservatives as it makes more than 60 recommendations before the party’s autumn conference, the Guardian has learned.

Pickles presented a report of his findings to a meeting of Conservative MPs on the backbench 1922 Committee this week, amid anxiety within the party about the level of support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour among people under 40.

The former communities secretary briefed Tory colleagues that he believed a youth wing was necessary as the Conservatives try to build a mass membership movement again to rival the 500,000-strong membership of Labour.

The Tories have had a variety of youth wings over the years, but twice had to shut them down in the face of concern about some of their activities.

Pickles told the meeting “young people say silly things”, but that was not a reason to avoid having a youth movement, according to an MP who was present.

Pickles told the meeting that the idea was to invigorate and encourage young people to go out and sell the Conservative message. It needed to seem like an exciting thing to do, he said.

James Duddridge, a Conservative MP and former minister, said he approved of the idea of a new youth wing. “I joined the Conservative party when I was 19,” he said. “It was cheap to go to conference; I worked for the party and I went on training courses which helped develop my conservatism.

“We need to revitalise a new generation of people that will do the thinking for the Conservative party, as well as selling the message and [doing] the feet-on-the-ground work.

“We need a new youth wing of the Conservative party that will take us forward not just until the next general election, but for the next 50 years.”

The Conservatives will also consider investing in bursaries and training colleges to give young Tories the political debating, speaking and writing skills they need for a career in politics, after realising many older MPs benefited from such help in the past.

The then Conservative leader William Hague abolished the Young Conservatives in 1998 after its members embarrassed the leadership with extreme rightwing policies and drunken balls. Its successor organisation, Conservative Future, was wrapped up in 2015 amid links to a bullying scandal and the suicide of a young activist, Elliot Johnson.

More recently, there was an activist-led attempt to form a Conservative youth wing called Activate to rival Momentum, the organisation for grassroots Corbyn supporters. The group has already had to apologise after some young people linked to them were found to have engaged in a WhatsApp chat talking about “gassing chavs”.

Ben Howlett, the former Conservative MP for Bath, who led the Conservative Future group until 2013, said there should be no repeat of what happened that led the group to shut down some years after he left. But that would be avoidable with “stringent governance and protections”, he added.

Howlett said reforming the youth wing was a good idea and could help the party deliver a “message of hope” again.

“If there is a recommendation to revive the youth wing, it’s a good recommendation,” he said. “But I will fall back on what I said in 2013 when leaving Conservative Future: what does an 18-year-old have in common with a 35-year-old? There could be one group stopping at around 25 and another one for young professionals, for development and potentially training them to be candidates and activists.”

The Conservative conference is likely to be dominated by hand-wringing about what went wrong at the election that led May to lose her majority, as well as speculation about her future.

The former party co-chairman Grant Shapps said the Tories were outgunned on the ground in the election in June after having had a high degree of activist organisation in 2015.

“This time, we seemed to unlearn the lessons from 2010 that led to the successful 2015 campaign. We did not rebuild a ground team and it was a tragic mistake,” he said.

“We already had a ground force like Momentum and we let it go. There was also a lack of understanding that real people posting on social media are worth ten times a paid advert. The result we had was partly due to not putting those key parts of the ground campaign in place.”


Rowena Mason

The GuardianTramp

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