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Joe Cooke: As last night's documentary showed, we need a cultural change in the young Conservative movement

Cooke JoeJoe Cooke is a former President of the Oxford University Conservative Association. Last night, his time in the OUCA was documented in "Young, Bright and on the Right" on BBC2. Follow Joe on Twitter.

There is a problem with British politics, and unfortunately it starts with us. It is endemic and like an overgrown clematis threatens to choke the tree that supports it. The problem stretches beyond the Conservative party, but it is the Conservative party that we seek to protect.

The problem is one of culture and of image – the two are mutually reinforcing. An image exists, members seek to ape the image, and a culture is set which perpetuates it – a cycle of destruction which assists in reaffirming Labour’s criticism. A few members of Conservative Future, and certain branches such as OUCA and CUCA, do not help in this regard. I am no exception.  I felt the need to change certain key tenets of myself to be accepted and elected by members of OUCA. It took a long time to realise the damage that was being wrought. Whilst there are key reformers out there, and for my part I did try to introduce a more strenuous political and charitable side to OUCA, they are too few in number. Too many young Conservatives want to be Little Lord Fauntleroy. How do we change the incentives and the structures which perpetuate this pseudo-aristocratic behaviour? With greater democracy and transparency, but fundamentally by saying no to unacceptable behaviour when we see it.  I have now seen both sides of the coin with how I entered the Conservative Party in West Yorkshire to being involved in Oxford politics and the disparity is stark. It is time we started to truly engage with local communities and reform our youth branches.

An article in ‘The Commentator’ by Harry Cole and Joe Armitage highlights the point perfectly – OUCA and CUCA, the main representatives of the Conservative movement at our two most prestigious universities, have become malignant entities, cancers at the heart of the movement. It cannot be allowed to go on. We cannot fail to engage or promote Conservatism at Oxford or Cambridge. For every rotten apple left untreated, we risk the spread of infection. They are the associations that the nation looks to, precisely because of how many leaders and ministers they have and will continue to produce. Only through centralised pressure (stopping of speakers) and localised initiative (actions of the grassroots) can they be restored to sanity and soundness.

It is easy to assume or assert that this behaviour is limited to Oxbridge, but it would be incorrect. The spread of Port and Policies across university associations (such as UCL and Nottingham), and attempts to compete with the ridiculous annual expenditure of £10,000 demonstrates the problem. If we are to win, then we must be the change we seek to see.  If we do not act, the problems we find now will seep into the Commons, as a culture of self-selection ensures that many candidates have been moulded in these loutish conditions.

It is also easy to assume that this behaviour is limited to a few "eccentric" individuals, and that media bias leads this to become the established image. I have more faith in the British public than that, and if the actions of a few can set the image of the many it is because those actions confirm established beliefs. This confirmation demonstrates a culture exists which promotes such behaviour, however small it may be. 

We need, and we can achieve a responsible young Conservative movement. But it cannot be achieved by burying our heads in the sand or by pretending that such problems do not exist. To restore faith we must act, and act transparently. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. If people fear they will be ousted, if people realise their actions will no longer be tolerated – then a cultural change will begin. Greater democracy and transparency at every level are required. Otherwise any attempt to rebrand will be futile. I only hope the next generation of Conservative activists can succeed where mine failed. It is our responsibility to re-engage with our generation, to reconnect with the core tenets of the Conservative party, and most importantly to not forget ourselves.


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