“Theresa May isn’t cool”: do the Tories need their own Momentum?

As Labour activists are already campaigning for the next election, frustrated Conservatives are calling for an equivalent force.

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Less than a month after polling day, tens of thousands of Labour activists have begun campaigning for the next general election.

Already, they are going out door-knocking in newly marginal constituencies. This weekend, a group is heading to former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s Essex constituency of Chingford and Woodford Green, where the majority fell from over 8,000 to 2,438 on 8 June. Another high-profile scalp in Labour’s sights is Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, whose majority in west London’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip has been more than halved.

Momentum, the membership network born out of Jeremy Corbyn’s support base, is behind this plan. It launched its next general election campaign last week. The group’s membership has been increasing from 24,000 since the election result, and it has begun training more of its activists in canvassing techniques. The group was doing this ahead of the election, with Bernie Sanders staffers running training sessions throughout the country.


A Momentum training session in London. Photo: Anne Laymond​

It has also begun recruiting volunteer filmmakers to produce viral campaign videos, and directing its manpower to constituencies that are now vulnerable to Labour – even if the next election is officially five years away.

“I would love for the Conservative Party to do something very similar”

“The Conservatives will learn from their disastrous campaign, and won’t make the same mistakes twice,” warned Momentum’s national organiser Emma Rees. “We must stay on the front foot, and prepare for a possible snap election.”

But even if the Conservative party runs a slicker campaign with a more appealing leader next time round, it’s already behind on its ground game. Compared with Labour’s 700,000 members and tens of thousands of Momentum members, the Tories’ 140,000 members or so just don’t measure up.

And party insiders are worried about it.

The Environment Secretary Michael Gove voiced these concerns at an event a couple of weeks ago, when questioned by a young activist frustrated at the “top-down” Tory campaign:

“Momentum brought lots of enthusiastic young people into politics, provided them with an opportunity to campaign for things in which they believed, and . . . it also helped change the culture of the Labour Party. Now, I’m not for a moment going to say I endorse all the principles people [hold] if they join an organisation like Momentum, but I do think we can learn something from them.”

***

From speaking to a number of Tory candidates and activists who were out on the campaign trail, there’s a feeling within the party that it has failed to reach younger voters – and needs some kind of answer to Momentum.

The call for a Conservative Momentum is made up of three wishes:

The first is for a youth strategy that goes beyond “young people don’t vote”, as one young activist derisively describes it.

The second is to compete with the manpower that Labour and its “standing army” of campaigners in Momentum has at its disposal.

The third is a social media strategy that will make its messages go viral; videos like Momentum’s Tory broadcast spoof “Daddy, Why Do You Hate Me?” which was viewed more than 7.6 million times and reached 30 per cent of UK Facebook users.


Young Tory Scottish campaigners. Photo: Getty

“The tactic we used was to focus on those people who had only voted before, not the people who hadn’t voted,” reveals Ben Howlett, the former Tory MP for Bath who lost his seat at the election.

“Until Corbyn came along with Momentum, political parties had been ignoring quite a large group of people who don’t bother to vote,” he adds. “This time around, in a large number of Labour marginal constituencies, people came on board – I think that was largely because of the whole Momentum work that was being campaigned on behind-the-scenes. They were focusing on that demographic.”

“Our policies aren’t attracting younger people, and they should be”

“I would love for the Conservative Party to do something very similar,” he tells me. “I think they need to reach out heavily to younger voters.” Howlett was once chair of the now-defunct party youth wing, Conservative Future. He increased its membership to 23,000 – not far off Momentum’s numbers. But now the group no longer exists.

He believes the party needs to build a “big, widespread, mass membership organisation to represent younger people”, including students and young professionals, “which, frankly, they haven’t really done since the beginning of the Cameron era” in 2005. “Why are we ignoring that crowd?”

Other Tory activists echo this view. There is widespread concern that they had nothing to tell voters on the doorstep who were under 35 or had metropolitan values. The manifesto didn’t contain enough for them – or at least was obscured by a relentlessly negative stop-Corbyn message, and distracting policies.

“Our manifesto was an ideologue’s wet dream”

“What’s all this stuff about fox hunting, for God’s sake? It just didn’t need to be in there at all,” says Flick Drummond, the former Tory MP for Portsmouth South who lost her seat in the election, and encountered Momentum activists “pouring in” to her seat. “Secondly, the social care thing . . . nobody understood what it all meant.”

She says the Conservatives “absolutely” need a version of Momentum, a way of scrambling enthusiastic activists at short notice – “we do. No doubt about that”. She believes her party’s “policies aren’t attracting younger people, and they should be . . . there wasn’t very much in the manifesto for them, really”.


Theresa May on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty

Howlett condemns the manifesto as “an ideologue’s wet dream”. “Keep it simple, stupid,” he tells his party. “No younger person thought it made any sense to them, because nobody actually told them it made any sense to them.”

A Tory Momentum appeals to some insiders because of the restrictions of Conservative central office. The party’s HQ was so controlling of the election message –Theresa May, Brexit, stop-Corbyn – that some candidates complain they were unable to campaign on local issues. Drummond says all her leaflets had to go through central office, and she had to fight to keep fox-hunting off her campaign literature.

“We lost the social media war”

When the election was called, Howlett warned the chief whip Gavin Williamson that if the party were to win a bigger majority, it would need “the infrastructure in order to run the campaign on the ground in our key marginal constituencies . . . we don’t have the infrastructure. Labour’s polls were low, but they had the infrastructure, Momentum, going out there, knocking on doors constantly.”

Indeed, there are stories about how Downing Street staffers had to do a desperate ring-around to try and recruit enough candidates, let alone activists, after Theresa May’s announcement in April.

Howlett believes the party has been “neglecting” growing its membership. “I hope they’re going to wake up and smell the coffee . . . maybe an organisation outside of the Conservative Party might be a way of actually broadening out the populist appeal.”

Drummond warns that Momentum are “on the march” and could swing more seats to Labour next election unless her party builds an equivalent force.

And the group’s online presence is equally intimidating for Conservatives fighting marginal seats. “We certainly lost the social media war, that’s for sure,” remarks Drummond. “We had very boring social media, boring videos, and the messages just didn’t attract. And it was a lot of negative [content], against Corbyn, when actually people want hope.”

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There is, however, scepticism within the party about whether a Tory Momentum is possible. For this, the argument goes, you’d need enthusiastic young activists – and they are in short supply. Perhaps aside from those in Scotland, young Tory activists have been disheartened by the party’s meagre offering for students and young people.

According to one source, you need a “coherent message” for young people first, which addresses student debt, the housing crisis and Brexit concerns – otherwise the prospect of having a Momentum campaign for the Conservatives is “complete nonsense”.


An anti-Tory rally. Photo: Getty

Drummond adds that joining Labour is “the cool thing to do” among first-time voters, and this is difficult to counter – “it’s like Corbyn appearing at Glastonbury, you know? Theresa May wasn’t cool.”

“You can’t buy this – they’ll never have anything akin to Momentum”

There is also reluctance to emulate an organisation that has a reputation – particularly on the right – for being hostile towards local parties. Even those involved in Momentum admit that there are challenges in running an organisation that is outside the traditional party structure.

“It is a distributed organisation in a way so one person can say something that doesn’t reflect the views of the organisation,” says Erika Uyterhoeven, a Bernie Sanders campaign staffer who volunteered for Momentum during the election campaign. “They don’t have power over – to control what – everyone says . . . That’s the nature of having such an open organisation.”

But Momentum itself isn’t expecting a Conservative rival any time soon. “I know it’s cheesy, but we run on people power, not money,” says one insider. “Most of the stuff can’t be replicated without lots of enthusiastic, dedicated people who share the same vision.”

As a Momentum spokesperson puts it:

“Michael Gove said last week that the Conservative Party had a lot to learn from Momentum, but it just doesn’t work like that. We rely on tens of thousands of passionate, enthusiastic people across the country who believe in transforming Britain. Much of our campaigning . . . relies on lots on people talking to each other, getting out into their communities and giving up their time for something they believe in. A social movement, basically. And the Conservatives just can’t inspire this. You can’t buy this, and without a positive vision for the country – which they’re incapable of producing – they’ll never have anything akin to Momentum.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.