It’s a well-worn idea that politics is beyond parody, but even by contemporary standards, the botched launch of the grassroots group Activate takes some beating.
Activate had been set up as a Tory version of Momentum. Guido Fawkes had already taken great pleasure in revealing the paltry donations it had received, before it emerged that several members had used an official WhatsApp chat to make a series of disparaging jokes about the working class. Among the stream of messages were suggestions that “chavs” needed to be gassed, be subjected to medical experimentation, and that they might even belong to their own subspecies: “Homo Chav”.
Not that it matters, but surely it should have been “Homo Rusticus”?
Activate probably won’t survive, so tarnished is its reputation. It doesn’t deserve to. Such a stupid scandal demonstrates it was appallingly run from the beginning, manned by people of extraordinary ineptitude.
But it does raise a few interesting questions. Firstly, is conservatism really suited to youth movements?
The clue is in the name. Conservatives don’t really do radical activism, nor do they campaign for sweeping change. Successful grassroots movements tend to be militant, and are remarkably hostile to political opponents. Establishing a youth wing to ‘counter Momentum’ is all well and good, but fails to recognise that Momentum’s success lay in the vacuum created by parties themselves abandoning young people.
What will sway young voters back to the Conservatives are fairer policies.
Young people were bound to vote for Labour at the last general election when Jeremy Corbyn promised them the Earth. It mattered not that it was built on sand, as the Tories weren’t offering them a thing. But they aren’t the mercenaries they're portrayed as.
Even the conservatively-minded can't look at universities with much enthusiasm. Social mobility at university is better than ever, with pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds increasing their applications every year, but the beneficiaries vote Labour because the system is broken. Schools don’t properly equip the young: modern languages for example, which provide freedom to travel and work abroad, are in an appalling state. Education stimulates and builds a strong economy, but nowadays degrees are easy to get. More employers, therefore, demand them, which make them essential. That means debt.
This system cannot be maintained, and the government should follow Lord Adonis’ suggestion that fees should come down. Conservatism should set people free, not indebt them early. For fees to come down, there must be fewer places, or certain subjects will need to pay for others. Poorer universities can close, whilst bursaries should be plentiful to help less well-off students. Those who have already graduated should be relieved of some of their debt, especially medical students. The end result would be to revalue a university degree, lessen the burden of debt, and improve the quality of teaching. Young voters can only benefit.
Stronger students will create a stronger workforce. More may be tempted to head abroad where employment opportunities are plentiful, especially if language learning in the UK is addressed. Making this easier should be a key part of the government’s Brexit negotiating strategy, as well as the deals it plans to strike with other nations. On top of this, more incentives are required for start-ups, including lower taxes for younger businesses. It would be dynamic for the economy, and with reduced debts more young people would be prepared to strike out and take risks, breaking the system of low wages, stagnation and lack of fulfilment that disillusions so many.
Housing, too, grates with the young; it’s feared nine out of ten under 35s will never own their own home. But the Tories already have the tools to fix this in their ideology. Excessive regulation is a conservative bugbear and it prevents major house-building schemes in this country. By cutting regulation and incentivising building, private businesses can build faster, and meet the country’s huge demand.
Fix education, employment prospects and housing worries, and the government will also go a long way towards curbing the crisis of mental health amongst the population's youth. Depression among young people has risen 70 per cent in 25 years; there’s little doubt that these background fears weigh heavily on people’s minds.
Again, these moves won’t be palatable to all, but the majority, you would hope, would see the logic and fairness. Policies are how you win round young voters; setting up youth groups staffed by oiks is not.
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