The most popular person at Conservative party conference this year is Jeremy Corbyn. And this time it’s not because they think he’s heading for electoral oblivion.
From the first thing you see upon arrival being protestors’ TORIES OUT! placards to the most traditional of Tory members inside the conference venue praising left-wing policies and Momentum videos, Labour is everywhere you look.
On the Sunday morning conference opened, the Communities Secretary Sajid Javid morphed the Tory slogan into one that sounds much like Labour’s, telling BBC Radio 5 Live: “We are determined with our mission; a country that works for everyone and not just the privileged few”. That evening, May admitted to a Tory activists’ drinks reception: “We thought there was a political consensus. Jeremy Corbyn has changed that.”
Events on the conference fringe include “Is the Intellectual Momentum all with the Left?” with left-wing activist and columnist Owen Jones, and “How Conservatives can save capitalism”.
A party insider went so far as to call it an “obsession”. So what’s going on?
Jeremy Corbyn’s achievements in the election were interpreted by many on the left and right that the country is fed up with austerity. The Labour manifesto included investment in housing, healthcare, education and everywhere else where money has been tight thanks to nearly a decade of cuts.
Now it looks like the Tories are half-heartedly trying to do some spending, with the headline pledges at conference so far being: a £400m investment package for rail and road schemes across the north, pumping an extra £10bn into the Help to Buy scheme, keeping tuition fees at £9,250 and raising the loan repayment salary threshold from £21k to £25k.
Panic about youth engagement
These policies are not exactly radical, but the intention is clear: the Tories are terrified of Labour’s popularity among young people. Young voters overwhelmingly preferred Labour at the election – which had the highest youth turnout in 25 years – with 62 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voting for Jeremy Corbyn’s party.
“It’s failed to engage with new generations,” said the former Universities Minister David Willetts of his party. “A lot of these young people, people in their thirties, their aim is not to promote Marxist revolution. Their aim is to own a place of their own, to have a decent funded pension, to have a reasonably secure job that’s well-paid.
“This is not a radical agenda of destruction of a Britain; in fact, these are Conservative aspirations,” the frustrated ex-minister added. “It should not be beyond the wit of the Conservative party to provide these things for younger generations… We are currently failing to do it. We bloody well should be capable.”
This effort to translate Corbyn’s ideology into Conservative values is present among many Tory MPs. While both May and the Chancellor Philip Hammond in his speech have both felt the need to directly the defend the very concept of capitalism, some of their colleagues are voicing concerns about the party’s framing of these free market ideals.
One former minister said the party needs to let go of “ideological taboos” around council housing and public ownership, while Sam Gyimah MP said: “They [youth voters] can still be disillusioned with capitalism, because for them, the markets are not working for them. We need to offer them something Conservative: the prosperity and the fruit that a market economy can deliver.”
While warning against “Corbyn-lite”, Gyimah urged his party to embrace a warm message about multicultural Britain in order to attract young people: “The way in which sometimes we talk about diversity and diverse issues is far removed from modern Britain.”
He also condemned his party for running successive election campaigns that neglected young voters: “We talk about being a One Nation party, but when it comes to elections somehow we pit one generation against the other. That’s why we’ve got to change our politics.”
Labour’s membership size is also a key concern at this conference. One of the reasons the party is desperate to attract young people is because of its dwindling membership. It is now set to drop below 100,000 members next year, which puts it below a sixth of Labour’s size.
John Strafford, who campaigns for increased democracy within the Conservative Party, lamented to a sparsely filled Manchester Town Hall chamber on Monday morning: “As the membership declines, we’re going to have a spiral downwards. And the other aspect of this is of your ten activists who are there, a couple of them are going to die in the next year because of the age of them.”
The Tories need to boost their membership with young people both in order to have a future, and to have the campaign heft Labour showed at the election. Strafford complained that “nobody’s trained” properly in canvassing anymore and “the quality has been diluted” because of this.
One activist at the Conservative Campaign for Democracy event complained about being “outnumbered on the streets sometimes 30, 40 to one” by Labour campaigners, and another said she felt like CCHQ was “turning us into market researchers” rather than effective, passionate activists. She mentioned a Momentum training video as “the most effective thing I saw on social media over the election campaign – it was simply old-fashioned canvassing, how to talk to voters on the doorstep, to engage with conversations… I know they didn’t win this election but it feels like a moral victory for Labour.”
While spooked by Labour, some Tory activists see the Momentum model as an aspiration in terms of party structure. A number of MPs, former candidates and party insiders have told me they would like a strong membership bloc that can operate outside the party’s official confines, and bring more power to the members.
“[We’ve had] millions spent on focus groups – the biggest focus group should be the party itself, the members of the party, that’s what ought to be the case,” said Strafford. “And don’t be taken in by the media when they say that party members are the extremists.” An interesting echo of Momentum’s struggles to be taken seriously.
Ben Harris-Quinney, chair of the Bow Group that campaigns for democratic reform in the Tory party, spoke enviously of democratisation and rule changes “bedding in” to the Labour party, with “Miliband’s reforms leading ultimately to Jeremy Corbyn”.
The technological nous of Momentum’s young members was also the envy of Tory activists. “At the Labour conference, they were having sessions with young people, devising new apps to go out,” said Strafford. “The Tories spent £1.5m on Facebook; the Labour party spent about £5,000. The Tory party paid for adverts attacking, saying what a disaster Jeremy Corbyn was; Labour used it to share hope, opportunity, and young people all went out.”
In a final plea to his audience, he added: “Anybody who wants to help devise an app, or to put up a website, we’ll try and work together with you.”
But compared to the crowds showing up to Labour’s events last week, the hall was far emptier and far greyer. Even if it was full of enthusiasm for the opposition’s ideas.