With the relaunch of the Young Conservatives at yesterday’s Conservatives’ Spring Forum, Mason Boycott-Owen talks to Ben Bradley, the man entrusted with revitalising the youth wing of the party.
Ben Bradley has one of the most thankless tasks of anyone within UK politics – getting young people to vote for, and get involved with, the Conservatives.
Becoming the first Conservative MP of Mansfield in 100 years at the 2017 election, he’s made a name for himself, often for the wrong reasons. Blog posts from his youth and the ‘wholly untrue’ tweet accusing Jeremy Corbyn of ‘selling British secrets to communist spies’ have dominated headlines.
He’s a bit of a contradiction: a Conservative MP for Labour heartland, Mansfield, the 28 year-old youth tsar of a party with a big problem with youth, and a fan of “angry lefty-music” like Frank Turner.
Yet he’s responsible for rebuilding the Tory youth moment. This is no easy task, as MP Kemi Badenoch noted that when getting involved with Conservative Associations: “there’s no one who wants to do it, they’ll even take a 12 year old if that’s the person who wants to do it – we’ve got to do better”.
The failures and future of the Conservative youth movement
I caught up with Ben at Portcullis House earlier this week to talk about his politics. In hindsight I should have been more apprehensive given how Ben recently joked about chopping off a journalist’s testicle. I, however, left the meeting with both bollocks in check.
The Conservative youth movement has laid dormant since the 2015 scandal which resulted in the death of Conservative activist Elliott Johnson. This vacuum has seen attempts to take the initiative from groups such as ‘Activate’ which caused controversy for their comments about ‘gassing chavs’.
“Well obviously Activate is not us”, Ben sighs, “but in the absence of that structure, people do their own thing, that’s part of the reason we need to bring back that structure.
“A lot of the feedback of being involved in the youth side of the party has been a struggle to get your voice heard.
“There's been a feeling like it's almost the postal service of the Conservative Party - you get dumped a load of leaflets to go and do and nobody really values your opinion and it can't be that way.
“We’re creating something genuinely interactive, where younger members have the ability to feed into what we're doing.”
When I asked Ben if this input would involve shaping policy, he hinted that it would: “All of it I think, for us it is: ‘What do we want this to look like?’ and to get the input from the members themselves on how this is needs to work.”
Katie Balls recently reported that young campaigners would be given a prominent role at party conference. People still talk to William Hague about his appearance at Conference as a 16 year old. Representation and seeing someone your age with a platform is key to engaging young voters.
This new youth movement for under-25s is a demographic which the Conservatives really struggle with. In the 2017 election, Labour had a 40 point lead over the Conservatives in this age-group.
This rejection of the Conservatives begs the question for the party: do young people dislike the party because of their policies? Or, do young people dislike their policies because they dislike the party? Ben thinks the Conservatives need to work on both policy and on image:
“I don't think Corbyn does have the answer on tuition fees - I don't think he can deliver on what he's saying he can.
“The PM is doing a review into higher education funding and the things we can do around interest rates or maintenance grants - all those things are up for discussion.
“My personal opinion is that tuition fees are the right thing to do. In a community like mine the alternative to tuition fees is largely poorer people who don't go to university paying more tax so that largely richer people can get better education. Oddly for Jeremy Corbyn, it's about the least socialist thing you can imagine.
Yet for Ben it is about not only detoxifying the image of the party, but making it a thing of pride.
“The other side of things is that there are times and places when it can be hard to be a Conservative, actually, to stick your head above the parapet and say so.
“University is perhaps the most public of those places, along with Twitter. The biggest challenge for me is to, as a Government and as an organisation, empower people to feel like they can say they're a Tory and that they're not alone. That’d be a huge step forward.”
It does seem odd that the leader of the youth movement seems out of step with the priorities of young voters. Young people by and large don’t want tuition fees and they didn’t want Brexit. Ben defends this stance, saying that “Not everyone will agree but that's down to us to stand by what we believe in.”
An alienated generation, resentful of the Tories
The Conservative youth problem runs deeper than just un-empowered Conservatives. With Bradley’s support for tuition fees, in addition to how many young voters feel alienated by Brexit, and the rejection of votes at 16, there’s a real risk of an entire generation resenting the Conservatives. Unsurprisingly, Ben disagrees:
“I'm not sure that's the case […] as far as votes at 16 goes, when my inbox is flooding with young people asking me for votes at 16 my opinion may change - but not one single constituent has ever emailed me about it.
“Saying young people voted for Corbyn is the same as saying young people voted for ‘remain’ in the referendum - it depends on the community you're from.
“With Brexit, we've got to wait and see - we can't judge what it's going to be like before you know what it looks like.
“If, this time next year, all of those opportunities are gone then I'll be as grumpy as everybody else.
“When it comes to the next election, Brexit will be done, one way or another, and they're going to vote based on domestic things, not on Brexit, because that'll be over."
Despite the fact that Brexit is a constitutional change that will have implications for decades to come and won’t be ‘over and done with’ by the next election, this is an added burden to those with often over £50,000 worth of debt.
“Some have that debt” says Ben, “But I think we need to deal with some of the issues around tuition fees but we also need to recognise that universities are not the be all and end all. In communities like mine, 10 or 11% of people go to university - it's about having an offer for everybody.”
Ben is clearly passionate about his constituency, but when thinking about a national youth movement that the Conservatives need to engage with he may need to look beyond Mansfield.
Taking the fight to our universities
However, Ben is keen to engage with universities – combatting what many in the Conservative party and media refer to as the ‘safe-space’ and ‘censorious culture’ in higher education.
“We need to do more to get into some of those spaces, whether that is social media or university campuses.
“Seeing some of the reactions to Conservative speakers at student unions, their voices are being shut down and we can't let that happen.
“So we're going to roll out a bigger programme of university engagements. We're going to do more as a party to get round the country and hold events and get people involved.”
This focus on proactive campaigning seems similar to the work which Momentum have done over the last few years (many seeing the grassroots campaigning as one of the major reasons behind Labour surprising 2017 result). Ben didn’t like this comparison:
“We’re not a Tory Momentum - it's not that whole atmosphere, it's not attractive to me at all. They had an ‘Unseat Ben Bradley’ campaign in my seat a few weeks ago which was the most negative thing you could ever imagine.
“It's a case of: 'oh this evil Tory has taken our seat,' and I don't want to be in charge of an organisation like that.”
Labour don’t have the answers
Given how comprehensive the Labour youth offer was in 2017, the Conservative offer does seem to pale in comparison.
“Nothing we do will ever be what the Labour party will promise to do - I can be pretty sure of that” Ben said, “but we're in Government, not in opposition, and we've got to deal with realities and the practical implications of what we're doing.
"And I think that, in a nutshell, is the Conservative’s issue with youth policy – they cannot compete with Labour, and are deciding to convince rather than change."
This is a risky strategy. When it took something so radical to get young people to vote in 2017, what can the Conservatives possibly offer to trump that?
“Yeah, fiscal competence is not sexy,” joked Ben, “but in opposition that's much easier because you can promise whatever you like."
When I asked if this was Corbyn deliberately misleading the public he said:
“It would be very un-parliamentary for me to suggest that anybody is deliberately misleading anybody. I think that one of the reasons Corbyn finds himself popular is that he genuinely believes in what he's saying. I think he's nuts but he clearly believes it - that doesn't mean it'll work.
“It’s very easy to make promises, but whether anything would be any different under a Labour government is a different question."
Labour itself has issues with racism, sexism and antisemitism, something Ben thinks is quite telling:
“I think that the leadership of the Labour Party now comes from a totally different place, a totally different ideology to the people the Labour Party has traditionally represented.
“It's not for me to say if they're racist or not - I’ve learned my lesson on that front. But there's certainly an atmosphere which makes me uncomfortable.
“The equality conference one is the one I always pick up on, where straight able-bodied white men aren't allowed to go. Positive discrimination is just as bad as normal discrimination in my mind.”
As easy as this may be for Ben to say as a straight, able-bodied white man, he thinks that this ideology is one which informs much of what Labour do:
“Most people want the ability to make their own choices to stand on their own two feet and to have the opportunities to do alright. It's not about selling Marx's Guide to the Galaxy, actually it's just what are we going to for you and what are we going to do for your community.
“We’re not the party of ‘raise a placard and march down the street for violent revolution’ - and we're never likely to be.
“If Corbyn got into Number 10 I think I would emigrate” he laughs, “I don't know - I think it's a really dangerous situation for the country”.
Reflections on the youth movement: policy and image both need change
Ben is aware of the struggle he faces in this job. Whenever I raise the issues of tuition fees, Brexit or housing – issues of vital importance and interest to young voters – he acknowledges ‘this is the issue’ or ‘this is the challenge that we face’.
Yet this is exactly the problem with the current government: they mention awareness of the issues without tackling them. Take, for example, Theresa May’s speech on housing, in which she expressed solidarity with the young who have a ‘right to be angry’. These were warm words and little more.
Ben’s backing of policies that are contrary to young voters makes it seem like the only issue the Conservatives have is with their image. If the main issue your party has is its image, despite the vast majority of the media being Conservative-leaning, then you’re doing pretty poorly.
Policy is vital here. There will need to be a swathe of truly Conservative solutions for young people, rather than a half-hearted compromise between Corbyn’s land of milk, honey and revolution, and May’s fiscal tedium. If young people are to get something out of British politics then there needs cross-party consensus on policy, not both sides pretending that they have our best interests at heart.
It’s early days for the Conservative youth movement, but it needs to make sure to speak beyond its own echo-chamber. Young Conservatives, a notable group because they are out of step with their peers, can’t give a clear indication of what young people want. The party needs to talk to those who feel alienated by them.
In order to make proud Conservatives, you need people to vote Conservative. That can only be done listening to all young people and offering them something truly compelling.
If it’s a choice between competing with Corbyn’s offer and convincing young people that the Conservatives have been right all along, then they may as well hand the keys to No. 10 straight over to the opposition.
A Backbench report by Mason Boycott-Owen