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11 September 2017updated 01 Aug 2021 9:36am

The short life and brutal death of Activate, the Tory Momentum

After a difficult birth two weeks ago, the Tory youth organisation Activate is in hibernation. How and why did it fall apart so quickly?

By Anoosh Chakelian

When you open the homepage for Activate, a new campaign to engage young people in the Conservative party, you now face a pop-up full of caveats and denials.

Click to enlarge. Photo: screengrab 

It’s a greeting that acts as a fitting goodbye to the shambolically short saga of the Tories trying to create their own version of Momentum, the Corbynite campaign that has built a new network of Labour supporters.

The sorry story began as all sorry stories do – on a Monday. On the evening of 28 August, the new Twitter account @Activate_uk_net (yes, “net”) tweeted that ancient Star Wars Admiral Ackbar meme (hashtagging the word “meme” and “retweet” for good measure), declaring “It’s a trap” after an image of Jeremy Corbyn:

Activate Twitter screengrab

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Its launch was widely mocked. Everyone from lefty site Red Pepper to the right-wing Westminster gossipers Guido Fawkes commented on how out-of-touch the campaign seemed for a group trying to attract young people via social media:

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And that wasn’t its only problem. Responding to Guido’s mockery of its Twitter handle, it changed to @ActivateBritain, allowing the original handle to be hijacked as a parody account – something the group didn’t notice for a while…

Another thing they didn’t notice until it was too late were the joke-names of people donating to the site, displaying on the site:

Then on Thursday their actual Twitter account was hacked.

Then hacked again, with pro-Jacob Rees-Mogg memes and criticism of Theresa May ensuing. “The @Conservatives need new direction. Activate supports Jacob Rees-Mogg for leader. He is the modern, principled PM Britain needs,” said one tweet. “Theresa May’s record proves she CANNOT be trusted to control immigration after Brexit. Choose Jacob Rees-Mogg. #MakeBritainSafeAgain,” said another.

Activate Twitter screengrab

Meanwhile, Guido ran a story about young Tories making comments about “gassing chavs” in a WhatsApp group it described as a “precursor” to the new Activate group. Activate responded by saying none of the commenters were involved in its top team, and would be removed from the group. Its pop-up on its website now says the thread didn’t originate from any of its members.

Organisers, including the campaign director and media coordinator, began quitting the group, leading to the “People” page on their website completely disappearing, as spotted by the i. After going undercover to access the organisation’s secret Facebook group, Evolve Politics then discovered from its national chairman Gary Markwell that all of Activate’s founding members had left before its official launch.

Now the group says it hasn’t officially launched at all – and stresses that it isn’t the “Tory Momentum”. This is despite explicitly comparing itself with the organisation on its own website: “Unlike the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign organisation, Momentum, we receive no funding from the Unions and therefore we rely on donations…”

Ever since the general election result erased their majority, the Conservatives have been looking for their own answer to Momentum, which significantly boosted Labour’s electoral performance. I spoke to Conservative party officials, candidates, activists and MPs in the aftermath, who told me they would like to see their party have its own grassroots network – mainly for engaging the young demographic they feel was overlooked by Theresa May’s manifesto and campaign.

But as Activate has discovered, you cannot put the “cart before the horse” – in the words of one disgruntled young Tory activist. You need a message and aims before you can start signing members up to support them. Without a significant policy offer for young people from the Conservative party, Activate had very little to go on other than botched memes. The party needs to change its attitude towards this demographic before it can begin tapping into it. As the frustrated party source puts it: “If your youth policy is that ‘young people don’t vote’, you’re fucked.”