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Publication: The Face, 2001

24 Hour Party People

What are you doing on Election day? Chances are you won’t be voting. So spare a thought for the people with the toughest job in Britain. New the ‘kids’ from Conservative Future

Wedndesday evening at the the University Of London Union bar in Bloomsbury. 'I really like Michael Portillo - he's really right-wing,' says Blythe Dunk. 'People who vote Tory at UCL aren't posh at all. My parent are working-class. I suppose I was brought up a Tory manner - my dad's quite a fascist, quite old-fashioned. He was in insurance. I just think "Torily". But sometimes you're just interested, naturally curious. I can get very angry reading thing about Europe and the lack of democacry. I can start shaking! Basically, I don't understand why anyone would want to be socialist, to be honest? It sounds corny, but conservatism is what I believe in. Now, we're the underdogs. I you don't vote, you can't complain about the government - it's a simple as that.'

Chances are haven't heard much from Blythe's kind for a while. A 20-year old with a manner as flamboyant as his name, he could pass for Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen with fewer locks but more reactionary views. Blythe is gay and prefers to admit to that before showing new acquaintances his political colours. Blythe is very aware that the young and the conservative have never had it so bad.

Logic suggests that being a junior blue is just about as off the money as it's possible to get. At a time when appearing even mildly right-wing is as acceptable as appearing mildly into cannabalism. Evangelical Christians and trainee coppers are titans of cool next to young conservatives. That shouldn’t be a surprise: he smart money says the imminent general election will endorse the Conservatives Party's popularity like the charts reflect British enthusiasm for skiffle. In the new millenium, single-issue activism makes an ethical quandary of your choice of trainers, demographic research suggest young people would rather eat shoelaces pay attention to Westminster and political parties blend seamless into on another. In the age of pop, politics is an appealing hobby like Anne Widdecome is a contender for Page Three.

But rebels don't look like rock starts any more. In a crowd of their final year peers at the SU disco on Saturday, you wouldn't spot fellow UCL students Emma Varley and Paul Nayton for raving rightwingers. Nonetheless, they're at the clumsy but determined vanguard of William Hague's caring Conservativism. They're milder than Blythe, more measured in their views. You could even say 'humble'. 'We're reconstructed Thatcherites," says Paul. 'The Conservatives are the party that best represents my views. And CF is the difference between doing something and doing nothing. Most of my mates would not give a shit about politics.'

It happens to be budget day today, but Paul's big news is that he's just been handed responsibility for Hampshire CF (he's already 'in charge' of Dorset). Broadly speaking, this delegation are middle-class, broadly seeking well-paid jobs in high-paying, secure sectors like finance and IT, broadly against a single European currency, broadly for tighter controls on asylum seekers, broadly non-drug taking and broadly vulnerable to the demons that stalk every true blue ("Where I'm from," squalks Blyth, with a Daily Mail face, "people won't walk the streets at night because of the asylum seekers,"). They don't particularly shout about it (Emma: 'Some people laugh when I tell them I'm a Tory; it'd definitely not be the first thing I tell people when I meet them’), but it's curious news that in British history's least ideologically-motivated moment, the counrty's least cool political clique is slowly expanding. Conservative Future, the umbrella organisation instituted by William Hague in 1998 to replace the Tories' Young Consevative wing and gather the handful of memebers not of pensionable age, has in the the past two years arrested its freefalling membership. The current levelled-out reckoning of 9,000 national members may seem paltry next to the Fifties' tally of 3,000,000-plus, but it's an indicator of modest change. Emma has her own theories about this: 'The Conservatives are the party of the young people, because their values - individual choice, freedom and hard work - are the values most young people share. Like, I don't go round preaching to my mates. I'm interested in making sure people are politically aware. I've tried to make it fun at UCL.'

Generally, the 'fun' translates as regular meetings and the occasional Westminster bigwig speaking on an issue. And yes, they are aware that earnestly debating Britain's future in Europe with a man in a suit may not be your idea of a gas.

'The Young Conservatives had a reputation for being alcoholic drunkards who went out and abused bars," adds Blythe. 'All the ones I've met are quite sad. I frequently abuse my body!’ he flourishes. 'I mean, we like partying too!"

So at variance from the default liberal-socialist undergraduate sensibility are some of Blythe's opinions (take your pick: detention centres for asylum seekers 'aren't inhumane'; Thatcher was great because she 'killed socialism'; and don't even get Blythe started on the French…) that many of his Uni colleagues may to want to abuse his body too, in an altogether less pleasant way. But that's Blythe: he's here, he's queer, and so are many of his views. Not so queer, however that increasing numbers of his colleagues don't share them. Gulp.


THERE'S an unpleasant smell in the lobby of the Conservative Tory Party Central office, Westminster, London SW1, where a stumpy bust of Winston Churchill observes the parade of pinstripes and blue rinses bustle in and out of the March evening. Shortly after seven, in strolls CF national organiser 25-year-old CF national organiser David Loader, Tory Keen Chap incarnate.

'There is a problem...' nods David, handing over a CF recruitment questionaire headed, humbly, 'You Talk. We listen'. There is definitely a problem. To wit: the average young person would probably not choose an interest in politics over, say, slumming in Goa, pursuing fame, potholing or, in fact, any other pursuit from the heaving buffet of 2001's youth-cultural possibilities.

'Politics isn't sexy,' says David. 'There's a lot of things young people can get into these days. The YCs didn't recognise the changes of the Nineties. We were putting on black-tie events when people were going to raves. We were gearing ourselves to be a social, not a political organisation.'

The greatest barrier to Conservative Future is, however, the Conservative past. Or, more specifically, the Young Conservatives. If the redundancy of modern politics isn't reason enough not to join CF, there are plenty more, and those reasons have traditionally resembled Hugh Grant, or Watchdog's Alice Beer, paragons of the terminally embarrassing who spent the best of the Thatcher and Major years celebrating nothing other than their own wealth, network and breeding. Buy the time their cult faded, as the recession of the early Nineties prompted a more austere approach to life and an end to Tory rule, the Young Conservatives' mutated from a social/political organisation into a running gag and then into a swear word. Few people can have been through university without wanting to nut a YC.

David points that these are merely 'perceptions'; ones, furthermore, they're attempting to change. The CF project now centres on demographic research, recruitment, convincing the young that Tories aren't all duffers, and convincing the duffers to get as 'hip' as they're reasonably able to the new youth mindset, (er, 'man').

'No one would deny that their is a stereotype of what a young conservative is. There challenge is to make people aware that CF is not just Tory Boy.'

The dawning realisation that being a true blue is considerably less fun then buying a True Steppers record accounts for the touchy-feely approach tangible in the CF literature: the stress is on common sense and social as well as personal responsibility, rather than radical political ideas. In jazzy fonts and youth-literate references ('Tony Blair's government is about as genuine as Meg Matthews' bust') it posits a 'new opposition'. With uniquely cringeworthy past never far behind, Conservative Future is proceeding with a very great deal of caution.

The young people such literature is now claimed to attract are, he stresses, 'normal; with an interest in current affairs,' David argues. 'People don't ally themselves to political parties, but they do have political views - on student debt, the EMU, devolution. They're more aware, but less active. The ones we meet don't just wanted to be MPs now.'

Conservative Future replaced three factions - the ghastly YCs, the Federation of Conservative Students and the Conservative Graduates , wherein a lot of people were 'pushing their own agendas, there to get into power'. The original rebranding was to be called Conservative Youth, until the name's proximity to history's more infamous political organisation was pointed out. Now, the average age of the CF executive is 22, recruiting grounds have spread beyond the main Oxbridge artery and include Aberystwyth, Swansea, Lancaster and Leicester university, with demographic emphasis beyond public school boys and into a wider calibre of graduates. CF aims to have 50 city branches, 25,000 members and become 'the biggest and best youth party in the country,' brims David.

Unless you especially relished a challenge, you wouldn't want David Loader's job - particularly when CF members announce to hardliner Anne Widdecombe at the Harrogate conference in Feb/March, that cannabis should be legalised, like 18-year-old Frank Young did. 'The Party... stands for choice,' he said, 'the choice should be extended to the legalisation of cannabis,' adding, 'I am a fairly normal guy.'

Mr Fairly Normal Guy speaks his mind and makes no new conference friends chums: there's a surprise. 'It's a sensitive issue,' sighs David. 'But it's an issue; it needs debate. The party does has a problem with its age - the average age is over sixty - but generally there are much broader views on things now. There are not that many extremists; most people are inclusive.'

With inclusiveness like Anne Widdecombe's, it may be while before the young begin swap skinning up for and signing up.

'It may not be something where people want to go down the pub wearing an "I am a Tory" T-shirt,' concludes David. 'But there are a lot of young people out there who are conservative.'


In some senses, it's incredible the party evens bothers trying to move to any rhythm other than the creakiest. Jeremy Bradshaw, Tory activist and head legal man at a European bank in the City, peers over his lunch and into the rainy sky above Blackfriars and admits that while the future is bright, the future is definitely not orange, or any other pretty colour, really.

"Most politicians are pretty grey, aren't they?' he says, knowing he oughtn't. Central office probably wouldn't sanction Jeremy's views on the party's current dynamic. 'The fact is we don't have any big ideological issues. The economy is going okay, there are no really big issues capturing the imagination… there's no fire in the belly of the party at the moment.'

A pinstriped 34 going on twice that, his appearance John Cleese and his tone of voice Des Lynam, Jeremy is frequently the youngest person at party meetings, which even he finds 'bizarre'. Talk about living politics... radiating wealth, breeding and conservatism with big, small and every size of c in between, his is the patter of the born politician. Full of polish, but not necessarily whitewash, however:

'A strategic conundrum for the Conservatives is that by encouraging young people to vote, you're promoting the Liberal cause,' he ventures. 'The conservatives haven't been fashionable since Thatcher. The challenge is to make the Tories fashionable. But If you persuade young people to vote, they won't vote Conservative. This is, perhaps, a major problem.'

Arguably, however, it's not. With 65 per cent of the party aged over 65, and as birth rate falls while society's average age rise, the notion of 'young conservatives' is evolving into more of an oxymoron than ever. While the CF recruitment machine embarks on uphill struggle with a near-vertical gradient, an emergent model of young conservatism has been has been duly noted by trendwatchers. Embracing the core Tory values of freedom, entrepreneurialism and choice, Thatcherite rebels - acquisitive, business-aware people who live a  broadly countercultural life - are forging their own politics by being free, entrepreneurial and choosing not to bother with political parties. 'They're the can-do generation, a paradox of Thatcherism and Marxism,' says trend analyst Sean Pillot De Chenecy. 'They're pragmatic, but concerned with the empowerment as workers working for themselves.' For them, traditional left and right affiliations have as much relevance to business as an abacus and quill pen.

Jeremy was a YC once, the full, brace-snapping authentic hooray. He was considering running for office in the next election. 'But I'm too busy,' he says. 'I'm still active and serious about politics. But...' He checks the sky, then checks himself. Even Jeremy Bradshaw's life has more colour to it than grandee-grey.


Be young; be foolish; but be fiercely opposed to the European federalist tendency and the devolution of the British Unitary state: in his flaccid leather jacket, comfy jeans and furtive, hungover form, this is how 20-year-old Rob Detheridge, chairman of Birmingham University Conservative Future, encapsulates his Normal Bloke conservatism. In the Gun Barrels this afternoon, a student pub near the Edgbaston campus, Rob will be sticking to the cokes on account of the remaining 2,000 words he needs to complete his final dissertation on Welsh devolution.

The political life, then: Rob recently organised a talk with MP John Redwood. Sixty people went. They had a drink with John after. They found him a good bloke. 'It's a hard slog. It's demoralising,' nods Rob. 'At the end of the day, most students are left-wing and hate the conservatives. It's difficult to talk about politics. In the society there's a hardcore of ten people who are into politics. The others just turn up for the beer.' Nevertheless, under Rob's stewardship, Brum Uni CF now has 45 members. It was previously 'a bit of a state - full of Tory boys, fat spotty blokes, the sort you don't want to go down the pub with.' Now, he assures, they've got 'lots of normal people'.

With John Redwood as star turn of CF's socials, you suspect Uni-age party members aren't in it for the glamour. Highly informed and as reasoned in his arguments as his forebears where convinced of their prejudices, it's Rob's interest in 'issues' that motivates him, the broad thinking given to issues beyond where the next party is at, beginning with the £12,000 of debt amassed over his three-years course, ending with the 'disastrous' consequences a single currency would bring, alighting on the welfare state, asylum seekers and drugs somewhere in between. Not that the party sees things his way. 'A lot of party people who wouldn't approve of us and think we're tossers,' Rob snorts. 'I was at the conference when Widdecombe did her speech about £100 fines for cannabis users. I didn't clap; I was surrounded by old people who all thought I must be taking drugs. I thought it was ridiculous. Cannabis should be legalised.'

Currently akin to an elephant trying to chum up to a colony of ants, it's Rob's view that the party needs to alter its approach to capitalise on youth's vague, but tangible right-facing mood. The current baseball-cap-in-hand just doesn't cut it.

‘CF is an image makeover mostly,' he says. 'They've got slogans like "Are you up for it?" and stuff. It's a bit... well, I can't really say it.'

Rob's unutterable mot juste is 'cringeworthy'.

"I've got myself into trouble,' he deflates. 'They should accept the fact that we're conservative and it's not a trendy thing to be.'

Rob's somewhat flakier mates, Jon and Nick - like Rob, the comprehensive-educated sons of Mondeo-driving parents - arrive. Like, what's their motivation? Less the prospect of stimulating debate on hot policy topics, it appears, than the thought of decent drinkup, cheers. They avidly get stuck into an afternoon pint. 'We do do a lot of getting drunk,' Jon announces, proudly. It's not difficult to see why the bar wins out over the ballot box so often.

Rob is off to London on Monday to hear Margaret Thatcher give a talk, the mild young cheering on the radical old. Rob and chums are edging proudly but quietly through the bad smell left by their forbears and into the future, asserting their right to smoke dope, detain asylum seekers in detention centres and drink beer with abandon, and finally move into well-paid jobs in the exciting financial, marketing, and management consultancy sectors of the economy. At the very least, they’re caring conservatives in as much as they care while their cotemporaries adhere ever more firmly to the just-don't-give-a-fuck politic of the age.

© Kevin Braddock 2001

All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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