Conservatives on campus: Dawn of a new blue future?

Since David Cameron's election as Conservative leader, Tory membership on British campuses has shot up. Tim Walker meets the students who are preparing for political battle
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The Independent Online

Nick Vaughan is a nice chap. He picks up visiting journalists from the station in his car. He buys them drinks and introduces them to his fellow Essex University students. He makes a mean cup of tea. But there's something curious about Nick. He's 21, and he's a Tory.

Before David Cameron and his limited-edition Converse trainers strode purposefully into the Opposition leader's job a few short months ago, the thought of a Conservative without grandchildren was anathema to many people. Conservative Future (CF), the organisation that has replaced the Young Conservatives, and of which Vaughan is chairman, had a flatlining membership of 15,000. Since the recent leadership contest, however, their numbers have shot up by 20 per cent.

They are now the largest political group on the Essex campus, which was once renowned for strident politics of the left-wing variety.

"Recently CF has seen a surge of activity not only on campuses but also in urban and rural areas," says Sarah Southern, the national organiser. "When we have asked for feedback from branches, especially university branches, we have heard that they are more active than the local Lib Dem or Labour branch. Some campus branches have said they are the only political presence on campus."

The Cameron effect has been a long time coming. At the last general election, the Tories' share of the vote fell in nine out of 10 major student constituencies, this time losing out to the anti-war, anti-fees Lib Dems. But it was in 1997 that, after enjoying the lion's share of the youth vote for 18 years, the Conservatives yielded the votes of half a million 20- to 34-year-olds to New Labour.

Vaughan traces his support for the Tory party back to that slump. His parents are politically apathetic (his mum will vote Conservative "at a push"), but he remembers watching the 1997 election-night coverage at home in Herefordshire as a precocious 12-year old, "seeing Tony Blair get in, and feeling absolute horror," he says. "I had this feeling that it was all false hope, that what Blair and New Labour were offering was shallow. Within about 12 months, I'd joined the Conservatives."

After leaving Hereford Cathedral, an independent school, Vaughan spent his gap year working as a parliamentary intern for Philip Bradbourne, the Conservative MEP for the West Midlands, which involved spending six months in Brussels and Strasbourg. "It really got me involved in the party," he explains. "There were a lot of young people in Brussels. I was the youngest of 75 interns, but the majority were under 30."

In 2005, now a politics student at Essex University's Colchester campus, Vaughan put three months of his summer holiday and the third instalment of his student loan into his campaign for the CF chairmanship, which included a presidential-style nationwide tour and a slick campaign video, replete with pretty "Vote Vaughan" girls, a Moby soundtrack, and a personal endorsement from Boris Johnson, who is, apparently, "CF's best marketing tool." Vaughan faced stiff competition from the young Conservatives' "Notting Hill set" but, he says, "one of the reasons I got elected was that I was offering an approach that was different to that of the London hardcore; I was from the West Midlands, one of the more unfashionable areas. All British organisations need to decentralise their activities from London."

Vaughan's responsibilities as CF chairman take him to Westminster once a week, where he meets people like Boris Johnson, now the Tories' higher education spokesman, and Justine Greening, the chair of Cameron's youth steering group. The role inevitably disrupts Vaughan's college work, and his other extracurricular interests take a back seat.

His housemates are "two Mexicans, a socialist, and an apathetic voter," he says. "It's not as if I'm surrounded by a bunch of Tory-boys. Most people don't find it shocking that I'm a young Conservative. The shock is that I'm a young person who's involved in party politics at all. Labour have a lot to answer for over voter-apathy in this country. Their message is so doctored, so artificial, that you get apathetic young voters and a cynical press."

The Young Conservatives enjoyed their Tory-boy heyday under Thatcher, when the party leadership frequently found themselves embarrassed by the drunken social events and extreme right-wing views of their youth arm. Many members were less interested in politics than in using the organisation's dances and charity events as a marriage agency, and William Hague abolished the outdated Young Conservatives in 1998, making way for the forward-thinking Conservative Future.

"I think the Tory-boy image of a bookworm with glasses, a blue rosette and funny teeth has gone," says Vaughan. Hague, whom Vaughan describes as a "cult figure" within CF, " saw that the branding of the Young Conservatives had negative connotations - Harry Enfield, or glorified dating bureaux in village halls in the 1960s. And that had to go."

Vaughan hopes to recalibrate the social/campaigning balance of CF in the image of the "work hard, party hard" Young Republicans in the US, who were hugely influential during the 2004 presidential election. For many of his Essex CF colleagues, the social aspect of the group may be more immediately important than policy. But what are the political issues that attract them to CF?

Many, like Vaughan, were driven to the Tories by an indistinct aversion to Tony Blair and New Labour. Cameron may have set up policy groups to look at issues such as the royal prerogative. But most of the Essex group meet the words "royal prerogative" or "democracy taskforce" with a blank look, and one poor girl hasn't even heard of Boris Johnson. Top-up fees, on the other hand, they can deal with. Despite many of them having actively protested against the fees, they echo - almost as if they were briefed beforehand - Vaughan's pat response to Cameron's reversal on the issue. "Before we even discuss the issue of top-up and tuition fees," goes Vaughan's opaque answer, "let's see what's on the table in the Conservative higher education package when Cameron and Boris present it in the next 12 months."

Few of the senior Essex CF members come from staunch Conservative families. First-year Amanda O'Brien and second-year Natasha Bailey both hail from farming communities, but while O'Brien's father is a pipe-smoking, 4x4-driving, paid-up Tory, Bailey's parents have never voted Conservative. The girls are part of a young Conservative organisation that is more reflective of society than the parliamentary party. As Theresa May has pointed out, there are more Davids in the shadow cabinet than there are women, but CF has a healthy gender ratio. "CF is demonstrating to the party that we're 50:50 and hey, you guys can do it as well," says Vaughan. "That's positive because we're grooming the party's future parliamentarians."

CF has made gains in unexpected geographical constituencies. Matt Palmer, 26, a local councillor in Bradford, used to be the only avowed young Conservative in his area, where Labour MPs outnumber the sole Conservative four to one. By the end of 2005, Palmer found himself running two fast-growing new CF branches - one on the Bradford University campus, and one for non-students based in Shipley. "We had a tremendous response at the Bradford University freshers fair this year," he recalls. "We signed up 30 people in a single day, although some of those may have joined just to get a free squeezy ball of Tony Blair's head."

Palmer admits that the Bradford branches of CF are made up largely of white students and young people, another stereotype that CF and the party need to dispel, especially in an area with such an ethnically diverse community. Sam Rozati, an Essex CF student, would be just the man for the job. He is a British-Iranian Muslim from a single-parent family in inner London. "Every stereotype says I shouldn't be a Tory," he agrees. "But every stereotype says I shouldn't be at uni doing a law degree either. Being a Tory means you believe you should be able to make your own decisions. I don't want someone else dictating to me how I should be leading my life. Conservative values also fit with Muslim values, especially on the importance of family and social cohesion."

Not all the young people at Essex are as centrist as Cameron might like them to be. James Cottis, 24, an Essex graduate and an area CF chairman covering 17 constituencies, espouses some distinctly hardline views. "The death penalty should be reintroduced for serious offenders like paedophiles," he says, and "If Labour are in power for much longer, Britain will be completely wiped off the map. We'll be part of Europe, and we should not be in Europe. We should sit on the side and see what goes on." And even: "The world ended when Labour came to power in 1997."

Vaughan is a little more optimistic. Although he acknowledges that the Conservatives still have a mountain to climb, he believes they have a new appeal for young people, even without the Cameron effect. "We're anti-establishment, which is a weird situation for the Conservatives to be in," he says. "I think CF can work with Cameron to make the point that you can be young, British, hold a flag and not be seen as a right-wing nutter."