While it’s seen as a rite of passage for students to enjoy a left-wing phase, being a Tory under 25 is considered weird. Katy Balls finds out what makes the new wave of ‘bloody difficult women’ tick.
Deep in Birmingham’s International Convention Centre, students dressed beyond their years in blouses and blazers are comparing tales of the night before at the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ debate. There’s an air of anticipation: Boris Johnson is due to speak in two hours and they need to get in the queue. As they head off, one girl, sporting a ‘What does the Conservative party do for women? We make them Prime Minister’ tote bag, refuses to budge. ‘I’m not going after what he did to Theresa,’ she complains.
One of the boys – wearing a ‘leave means leave’ sticker – rolls his eyes and sighs: ‘Typical remainer.’ The pair will have a chance to make up at tonight’s ‘Ain’t no party like a Tory party’ social. But when the 1,000 young attendees at October’s Conservative Party Conference leave for the day, they’re given a reality check when they are reminded to remove their passes. Should members of the public see their blue lanyards, there’s a risk they could be the subject of verbal or physical abuse.
These are the young Conservatives, oft-mocked political anomalies. The words young and Tory have a special place in the public consciousness – whether it’s William Hague’s schoolboy Conservative conference speech in 1977 or the Tory toffs of university dining societies – but not in a good way. Currently the Tories have fewer than 10,000 members under the age of 30 out of a total of 124,000. In a sign of just how bad things have become, the party received more money last year from the dead (in bequests and legacies) than from living members. They’re not doing much better with votes. In the 2017 general election, the Tories fell behind Labour in every age group under 40 – of those aged 20 to 24, just over a quarter voted blue.
As a political journalist who has spent the bulk of my 20’s following the Tories, I’m often asked why a young woman would consider voting for a party that’s seen as so pale, male, middle-aged and stale. At times, it’s been difficult to come up with an answer. Whether the issue is the EU referendum (forced by a Conservative government), student loans (costs of which have tripled under the Tories) or the sight of Theresa May holding hands with Donald Trump, most of my peers – I’m 29 – would rather walk across broken glass than pay a visit to the party’s conference – yet many regard Jeremy Corbyn speaking at Glastonbury as the height of cool. What drives a 20-something to risk social ostracism in the name of low tax? Young Tories might be an enigma to most, but these activists aren’t such a strange sight to me.
Having observed them first-hand, I know what makes the ‘Mayllennials’ stand out from their predecessors. For all the Bullingdon Club stereotypes – the infamous all-male dining club attended by David Cameron and Boris Johnson – young Conservatives are more likely to be found debating the merits of social mobility policy over coffee than popping champagne on nights out. ‘There are a few people in every party who are a bit weird, but most of us aren’t like that,’ insists Ellie Varley, a 21-year-old politics student at Canterbury Christ Church University who joined the party in 2016. What are the Tory weirdos like? ‘They have a Barbour jacket and wear Hunter wellies.’ And the normal ones? ‘We’re gin drinkers who enjoy the pub, but also like Theresa May.’ Ellie is president of her university’s Conservative Society. For the term’s first social they went to a cocktail bar. ‘Too many of us turned up so we had to go to Wetherspoons,’ she says.
They ended the night in a club – ‘why not, we’re students’ – and only one of the 30 gathered was wearing a Margaret Thatcher T-shirt. Not all young Tory socials are so tame. The party has a chequered history when it comes to activists doing and saying stupid things. Its youth wing Conservative Future was shut down in 2015 after one member took his own life amid bullying claims. Last year, a member of Cambridge University’s Conservative Association burned a £20 note in front of a homeless man. And this autumn the University of Plymouth’s Conservative Society decorated T-shirts with graffiti including ‘F*** the NHS’ for a group night out. Working in Westminster, there are plenty of occasions when I’ve witnessed a young Tory being obnoxious – for example, the time one MP’s 20-something staffer referred to an SNP MP as a ‘chav’ behind their back. The image of Tories behaving badly is so toxic that the Oxford University Conservatives Association, in order to rebrand, has attempted to get the Bullingdon Club named as a banned organisation. Ellie is one of a group of young Tories who see themselves as breaking the mould. ‘In the past, Tories were seen as a rich people’s party, so if you voted for them it was for self-preservation,’ she says. ‘We don’t really fit the stereotype.’
What makes Ellie so different? For one, she is a woman. In recent years, the party has had a particular problem when it comes to attracting females; research this year found that young women in Western Europe tend to be more left-wing than their male counterparts. Just 18 per cent of 18- to 24-year-old women voted Tory in the 2017 general election. ‘Most people say that if you’re female and Conservative you’re letting women down, and it’s not the case,’ she says. Aine Lagan, a 21-year-old Conservative activist from Northern Ireland, goes further: ‘The party does empower women because its entire philosophy is that it will help you go as far as your God-given potential.’
This message has yet to reach the mainstream. For Saher Murtaza, a 20-year-old student at King’s College London, the idea of joining the Tories was so alien that it was only when her sixth form was given a survey on party policies that she entertained the idea. ‘I was surprised my results said I was 70 per cent Conservative – I thought the Conservative Party was outdated and not for young, progressive women,’ she admits. ‘But it makes sense; I do think having a strong economy is what underlies everything.’ Predictably, there are strong feelings on Brexit, but they are hopeful for a future outside the EU. Saher is an ardent Brexiteer (‘it’s a shame that if you voted Leave you get bracketed with Nigel Farage, which isn’t me’). Of recent negotiations, Aine thinks ‘it’s the only deal on the table and it’s a good one’. Ellie, who voted Remain but admits she doesn’t trust the EU, is ‘not 100 per cent. I don’t feel it’s what she promised to deliver.’
What policies are the two major parties hoping will win over the younger generation? In the 2017 election, Labour’s manifesto promise to abolish tuition fees was credited with the party’s surge in support among 18- to 24-year-olds. In university towns such as Canterbury (where Ellie studies) the Labour vote swelled. Other pro-youth policies helping Jeremy Corbyn gain support include the promise of affordable homes and a proposal to cap rents for tenants. In contrast, the Tories’ attempts to win over the young include a millennial railcard and extending the party’s housing scheme for first-time buyers Help to Buy. Not that this necessarily translates to results. Ask a young Tory why they have chosen the party and the economy repeatedly comes up, along with talk of providing opportunities. Saher is ‘pro LGBT+, but at the same time pro low tax’. Ellie says history shows that the Tories always have to clear up Labour’s mess. Aine says the party unlocks potential. All three proudly point to the fact it has produced two female prime ministers as proof. ‘The Labour party don’t own me just because I’m a woman,’ says Ellie.
If there are so many reasons to turn blue, why aren’t more Tory women speaking out? Ellie says there are more young Conservatives than you think – they’re just unlikely to admit it. ‘Most shy Tories [people who vote Conservative despite saying they won’t] are probably female because they don’t want to deal with the aggro of admitting they are a Conservative.’ That hostility can be considerable. Admit you are a Conservative in your 20s and you risk becoming a social outcast – or worse. Chloe Schendel Wilson, 26, grew up in Surrey where her mother was on benefits. She joined the Tories in the aftermath of the 2017 election (she sees the party as ‘empowering’), but was shocked by the negative response she received. ‘Friends from university deleted me from Facebook. They assumed I’d change. I went on a night out and people were saying, “I hear that you’re a Tory now.” My impression has been that a lot of people in the Conservative party don’t care if you are from another party but sometimes on the Left if you’re a Tory, you’re “the enemy”.’
For Saher, the problems started at school in Kingston upon Thames – where being right-wing was ‘stigmatised’ – but continued at home. ‘My dad is a Labour supporter. When he moved to the UK in the 70s [from Pakistan] it was the time of Enoch Powell, and there was an anti-immigration mood. I think that’s what hardened him against Conservatism.’ When Saher became a Tory, her father asked her why she thought the party represented her. ‘He said minority communities were being affected by their policies and they were harsh on the poor, but I said he was analysing matters through a very narrow lens. We tend to clash a lot over politics.’ There’s the cliché that if you’re not a liberal at 25, you have no heart; if you’re not a Conservative at 35, you have no brain. Do these young women see why their politics are often depicted as heartless? ‘I think the perception is that the Conservative party are the nasty party because historically they have been anti-gay and racist,’ says Ellie – referring to the party’s imperialist past and the fact that Margaret Thatcher introduced Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by local authorities and schools – ‘whereas the Left are seen as kind people who work for the poor’
Is there some truth, then, in the Tories’ bad rep? ‘As the Conservative Party is one of the oldest in the world, there is a lot of history behind our policies. I think the party has changed; it’s just that not enough people recognise it,’ says Ellie. Nowhere is the party’s toxic image felt more strongly than on campus, which can be a lonely place for a young Tory. ‘University can be such a bubble, and sometimes on the Left there’s a rhetoric that they’re the only people who care,’ says Chloe. When she was at uni in Bournemouth she didn’t see herself as party political, but was reminded that her peers did when she applied to a Parliamentary internship scheme. Chloe was the only applicant who said she was happy to be paired with a Tory MP. ‘All the other young people said, “I’m not going with the Conservatives.”’ ‘There’s definitely a left-wing bias at uni. I even notice it among my lecturers on issues such as Brexit,’ says Ellie. While she may be able to summon 30 students to a society meet-up, being politically active on campus can be difficult. ‘I occasionally get called things like Tory scum when they can’t think of anything else to say. But it just shows they can’t bash my argument.’
Aine’s problems are online, where she posts about politics on Twitter. With a profile picture alongside Theresa May, she is an easy target for trolls who have told her they hope that she is ‘infertile’ or suggested that she looks like Margaret Thatcher with a stroke. ‘It does get me down sometimes, and on a few occasions it’s made me have second thoughts about being so involved – particularly if my family is being dragged into it,’ she says. ‘But I’m aware that I’ve got a unique voice and I don’t think online abuse should deter me. I use filters to limit how much abuse I see.’ It’s little wonder that when these activists do get together, it’s often for mutual support. Having first met on Twitter, Aine and Ellie are members of a WhatsApp group jokingly titled ‘Tory Scum’, while there’s another group called ‘Theresa May’s Baes’ for more upbeat conversations. ‘It’s good to have each other to turn to,’ admits Ellie.
I ask Ellie whether being a young Conservative is worth all the hassle: ‘I’m proud that I am one,’ she says. ‘If younger me saw a woman like myself in politics, being active and open, she would have felt like it’s OK. If I have to be the voice that gets other women involved, I’ll happily take the flak.’ As we go to press, the Brexit outcome is uncertain. Theresa May’s position is precarious – and divisive. According to Aine, ‘No one could have done this better. She was left to pick up the reins when there was no contingency planning put in place for a Leave vote.’ Ellie fears that ‘she lives up to her “bloody difficult woman” title. Failing to listen to those closest to her will be her downfall. I would like to see her go after 29 March.’ Both agree that her departure would be a sad one. ‘We wouldn’t have the Conservative Party of today without her,’ says Aine, ‘and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without her as a role model.’ So, are these young Tories about to start a trend? Chloe doesn’t hold out hope. ‘Even though people are starting to go off Corbyn, they’re not coming over to the Conservatives.
I suspect it’s likely they’ll remain an anomaly; only the most dedicated supporters will stick their heads above the parapet. But one thing is certain: today’s Mayllennials won’t be turning the volume down. They’ve come too far to turn back now.