Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How Jeremy Corbyn invaded Conservative party conference

Why the Tories can’t stop talking about the Labour party.

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?

Policy snatching

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.”

Ideological crisis

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.”

Membership envy

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.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.