Could the Tories ever become trendy?

2005: General election year - Even its PR people admit that the Conservative Party isn't about to be

''We're so uncool, we're becoming cool," said Boris Johnson of the Conservatives, before Michael Howard took the definitely uncool step of dumping his most popular minister from the front bench. Thus far the zeitgeist has never seemed further from the Tories' grasp: at the time of writing, they are a humiliating 11 points behind Labour in the opinion polls and further than ever from winning the next general election.

But looking a little further into the future, perhaps Johnson had a point. New Labour's brand of self-conscious trendiness - the student radicalism, the teenage rock groups - now looks as embarrassing as a middle-aged banker in leather trousers. Surveys of youth opinion consistently unearth right-wing attitudes to the economy, immigration, marriage and the monarchy. Topshop, the teen style barometer, was packed to bursting with Cool Britannia Union Jack dresses in 1997. Now it stocks nothing but prim, conservative tweed twinsets and strings of fake pearls. Are the Tories on the brink of becoming trendy?

Jack Soames, who does events PR for the Conservative Party, certainly hopes so. His task is to make the "Tory brand" attractive to the young and fashion-conscious. "The Tories have historically suffered from an image problem," he says. "They had an ageing membership, they weren't seen as inclusive enough or diverse enough. Classic brands such as Burberry and Jaguar have transformed themselves very successfully, and we need to do the same. That means getting younger, cooler people to associate with us."

Being something of a London socialite, Soames was in an ideal position to help. "I suppose my role has been to get glamorous people to come along to events like the Conservative summer party at the Shepherd's Bush Empire and Maurice Saatchi's summer reception in Soho. There has been a tangibly different atmosphere at these parties than at past Tory events."

The young and cool are a notoriously difficult group to impress, and Soames admits that he has had mixed results, particularly in his efforts to recruit celebrity backers. "I can't tell you that the Conservative Party is about to become achingly hip," he admits, somewhat reluctantly. "But there is a natural pendulum effect running in our favour. Conservative campaign headquarters is now full of young people, and there is a real feeling within the office that it's a new era."

Other young Tories echo Soames's view that it is "natural" for the tide to turn against the new Labour establishment. Paul Bristow, 25-year-old national chair of the Conservatives' youth wing, Conservative Future, tells me: "When I was at university, there were two perceptions of a Young Conservative. One was like Harry Enfield's geeky Tory Boy with glasses, and the other was a Hooray Henry type, swilling champagne. It was cool to be Labour. Now that perception is really changing, partly because it's easier for us in opposition - we're against the government and the status quo, which is attractive to young people."

Bristow says that the younger generation is culturally in tune with Conservative values: "Young people are drawn to the idea of freedom, choice and opportunity. The nanny-state tendency of new Labour is a huge put-off for them." It was always, he says, the old-fashioned image of the party and its succession of less-than-credible leaders that turned people off.

"Michael Howard might not be a new face, but he has brought us the credibility that we needed," he says. "Over the past 12 months we have seen the membership of Conservative Future rise by 3,000."

Lisa O'Toole, a 24-year-old Conservative, reports that the Tories now command more active support at universities than Labour or the Liberal Democrats. "At University College London, where I'm doing a Masters, the Conservative Association has 60 members . . . Labour has 40 members, and the Lib Dems didn't get enough to open. At Sheffield Hallam, where I was an undergraduate, the Conservatives were the only political group. Conservative Future has twice as many members across the country as the Labour and Liberal Democrat youth wings combined."

When I call to check with Labour Students, they dispute the figures. "Conservative Future often claims it has more members than us, but its membership includes all Conservative Party members under the age of 30, and we are just students," says a spokesman. "Our membership grew by 25 per cent in the year 2002-2003, and by 10 per cent in the year 2003-2004."

"A lot of 15- and 16-year-olds,"says O'Toole, "wonder why they should vote. They saw millions of people take to the streets about Iraq and the government completely ignored them. Conservative Future members feel that our contribution is valued. I can't see young Labour supporters feeling like that with Tony Blair." She admits, however, that negative perceptions of the party persist. "We have an uphill battle with our image. People think we're old-fashioned, homophobic, racist and upper middle class," she says. "It's all very well to go out and tell people we're different, but we have to show them we've changed. We need to do much more to encourage young people and ethnic minorities to run for seats in areas which are winnable, so we can change the composition of the party in parliament."

Progress has been slow, but the Conservatives are now actively seeking to change the demographics of the party. So far they have selected 24 prospective parliamentary candidates from ethnic minorities for the next election, more than any other party. Operation Black Vote says that only two of these are in winnable seats, and points out that Labour already has 12 ethnic-minority MPs in parliament. Nevertheless, the selection represents a significant step forward for the party, whose entirely white presence in the Commons looks anachronistic.

Ali Miraj, 30, moonlights as a DJ specialising in "funky US house". He also happens to be the Conservatives' prospective parliamentary candidate for the marginal seat of Watford. He thinks he is probably the first such candidate to have a DJ slot at a local club simultaneously. "My family came from a very affluent background in Pakistan. Their values were conservative with a small 'c' - respect, hard work, entrepreneurship and taking personal responsibility," he explains. "So the Conservatives were the obvious party for me." Miraj started his political career as a councillor in Ruislip Manor, before being selected as the Conservative candidate in the Welsh town of Aberavon. "I was the only candidate from an ethnic minority to stand in the whole of Wales, so I did get a lot of publicity," he says. "But I also really got out there and met people and listened to them. The seat was unwinnable, but I think I left a good impression. By the end of the campaign people were coming up to me and saying, 'If you weren't a Tory, I might consider voting for you.' "

Although they are certainly passionate, none of the young Tories to whom I speak has the kind of revolutionary zeal which, for better or worse, transformed the party under Margaret Thatcher. They complain about the party's image problems, but generally accept its political position. "I don't think we will have to go through the same kind of political overhaul as Labour before coming to power," says Miraj. "We shouldn't be afraid to fight Labour on the middle ground, and not get pushed to the right."

If anything, they want their party to adopt more of new Labour's presentational style, and they idolise Blair and Peter Mandelson. Paul Bristow tells me: "Tony Blair is the greatest politician this country has ever seen." Jack Soames says: "The Conservatives still haven't learned the techniques of selling themselves positively which Labour mastered so well. They are now catching up, but quite slowly."

One party supporter who sounds a deeper note of caution is Jo-Anne Nadler, a political journalist, one-time Conservative press officer and author of the frank memoir Too Nice To Be a Tory. "I don't see the party getting trendy at any time soon. The mistake the party has often made is to write new Labour off as a vacuous package. Some policies were actually very radical, and Conservatives misunderstand that at their peril."

For Nadler, the party's policies aren't distinctive enough to capture the imagination of the wider public, despite the dis- illusionment with new Labour. "People still don't know what the Conservative Party represents," she says. "They have to be bolder. They need to start talking more openly about selection in schools, about whether we want to move away from a monopolistic National Health Service and towards private insurance. I don't see any problem with the Tories being explicit about tax cuts and opposing ID cars - there has not been a clear message about either. If they established their political distinctiveness, then the packaging would come by itself."

Whether or not you agree with her politics, Nadler's got a point. These trendy Tories might have better clothes and hipper parties, but they are still desperately in need of a political make-over.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 2005 issue of the New Statesman, We punish the man, but protect a corrupt system