Blue is now the cool colour
Observations on Tory youth
The Conservative Party spent the conference season trying to shrug off its image of blue rinses, blue blazers and varicose veins. Yet it is not just the boy-band Busted who the Tories managed to woo to their cause. I saw with my own eyes a phalanx of bright, attractive, intelligent youth pouring into the Tory embrace.
Take Suella Fernandes. Fernandes is 24 years old, a member of the Brent North Conservative Association in London, and a prospective parliamentary candidate in Leicester. Pretty, with blonde streaks in her long hair and red lipstick, she has nothing in common with the twinset- and-pearls Tory female stereotype. Her clothes scream high-street shop, not Harvey Nicks. Her family is comfortably off and Asian. The Bradford branch of the party was recently disbanded after two Asian Tories suffered racism. I ask if it has influenced her view of the Conservatives. "This is my party. I want them to win," she says emphatically. Standing nearby is Kwasi, a tall young man dressed in a suit. His family came to Britain from Africa some years ago and would once have been seen as solid Labour supporters.
The impact that the war in Iraq has had on Muslims and many young Asians should not be underestimated. They feel "betrayed" by the assault on their rights and freedoms. As they find themselves being stopped regularly by the police, many feel that the government looks on them as terrorists-in-waiting. Post-Iraq, Labour is losing its claim as the natural home of the minority vote. When Conservative Future (product of a 1998 merger of the Young Conservatives, Conservative Students and Conservative Graduates) held its annual conference at Reading University last month, 15 per cent of those attending were from ethnic minorities.
Kevin Howlett, a 26-year-old lobbyist, claims that many of his friends in London are considering joining the Tories. He wants to be able to "keep my money" and "do what I want without fear of prosecution or persecution".
Presumably he is a Eurosceptic?
"Not at all," he insists. "We need to be part of Europe to compete with the rising markets in Asia and the US as well."
Once, to be a Young Conservative at university was to risk social isolation and sexual famine. Now it is a badge of respect. In the past year, Conservative Future has seen its membership rise to 10,000, and claims it is the largest political youth movement in the UK. Where once it was for geeks and fogeys like the precocious William Hague, now a typical member is female, savvy, attractive and cool.
And, wherever attractive women go, young men follow. The new Tories will tell you that the Blairites, who once had a monopoly on political cool, have nothing to offer young people like them.
According to Sarah Southern, the 24-year-old national organiser of CF: "Witness the failing of Labour at university freshers' fairs. At Newcastle, Labour shipped in students from Durham University to win new members." Even a reduction of the Labour membership fee to £1 wasn't enough to match the 150 members recruited by Newcastle CF. "At Southampton University this year, the Tories were the only party to send a youth representative at all," says Southern.
To many of these students, the Labour Party is anathema. Although they may not be stirred by Michael Howard's pale Euroscepticism and promises on immigration, his message of "small government, big people" is a clarion cry to a generation who seem moved by little other than the pursuit of their own pleasures.
Jessica Levers, another CF member, says: "In general, young people like to get on with their lives - they don't like being told what to do, whether by teachers, parents or the government." Of the difference between the parties she says: "Conservatives will provide state welfare and cover the necessities, but they're not going to say: 'You can do this, you can't do that', like Labour does. What we have at the moment is a nanny state, and I can't stand it."
This ethos of staunch individualism is different from the "caring Conservative" message adopted after Theresa May's comments about the "nasty party". This lot don't want to "care"; they want to be left alone to live their lives, their way.
The CF role model is media-savvy Boris Johnson, the MP for Henley, tipped by some as a possible future Tory leader. At least, unlike the current incumbent, he is likely to know who Busted are.