Nothing excites UKIP quite like a defection, whether its an MEP, a Councillor or the droves of young Conservatives whose shifting allegiance seems to be behind a dramatic rise in the number of young UKIP members. What does this mean for the Tory party’s youth wing and what does it mean for the party more broadly?
Gawain Towler, UKIP’s long-serving spokesman and advocate, remembers what it was like before Nigel Farage’s brand of politics started to appeal to a younger audience. He tells me, “six years ago, when I was 38, I addressed the UKIP conference, as the representative of our youth wing and there were only five student members in the audience. Today, we have 700 members in YI.”
Towler is delighted with this new demographic. Referring to the party’s young members he says “we didn’t have any, and now we do. Where have they come from?” Good question. For Towler, the answer is partly that young people on the right (and there are plenty of them) haven’t really had anywhere to go apart from the Conservative Party for a number of years, and that is now changing quite dramatically.
The rise of “small c” conservative and libertarian groups such as The Young Britons’ Foundation, The Freedom Association and the Liberty League offer young people much more than just party association and a chance to know “the lines.” YBF takes free-marketers and Atlanticists on fantastic trips to Washington and California, The Freedom Association is known for its irreverence and excellent social scene whilst the Liberty League conferences are immensely popular.
Donal Blaney is the Chief Executive of the Young Britons’ Foundation and was the first Chairman of Conservative Future, which was formed when Hague merged the various student and young groups at the time. He attributes the success of YBF to its lack of party politics. “We focus on ideas” he tells me. “Energies are not wasted on internal electioneering, positioning and managing egos.”
For Towler, ideas are vitally important to the success of any young political project. When it comes to young party membership of UKIP, he focuses on quality rather than quantity. “It may only be 5 per cent of Conservative Future who have joined us, but it’s the 5 per cent who have ideas. The radical few.” Without radicals and thinkers, says Towler, the Conservative Party will suffer. He recalls his contemporaries as a young Conservative; Dan Hannan and Conor Burns come to mind. He remembers them being the real radicals of his generation and he doesn’t see their counterparts in Conservative Future today. “It is dangerous for the Tory party that the radicals are leaving them. They are losing the ideas generation and we are benefiting. They might be embarrassingly off message at times but without them there is no development and no future.”
Speaking of being embarrassingly off message, rightly or wrongly most Tories in Westminster now associate the current Conservative Future chairman, Ben Howlett, with his infamous gaffe during a hustings. When asked which politician from Northern Ireland he most admired, he responded “Gerry Adams.” Even more bafflingly, he stuck to his position and described him as “a conviction politician.” He may have misspoke. He may have said something stupid under pressure but unfortunately for him he did say it and today “and Gerry Adams” is a suggested result when Ben Howlett is typed into Google.
One senior figure from the height of young Conservative notoriety tells me that when Norman Tebbit learned that Howlett revealed Gerry Adams to be a man he admired, the former Party Chairman “shook his head in disgust and said that nothing surprised him anymore about the state of the Conservative Party".
As party politics becomes more consensual (and for all the squabbling, that’s exactly what it is) it may be no surprise that the young blood of the party become more interested in knowing the day’s key lines and having the party chairman’s mobile number. Old hands tell me, with a hint of nostalgia, that young Conservatives were once about ideas, radicalism and debate. Supporters of the current set-up will say that its members are effective campaigners and it’s true that the focus is largely on leaflet delivery. For those wanting more, it seems that non-partisan groups are the place to go. That said, if you want party politics and some radical thinking, maybe UKIP holds the answer.