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Ben Pickering: A youth wing fit for purpose

Ben_pick Ben Pickering was until February this year Director of the Young Britons’ Foundation. He has previously been Chairman of Wales Conservative Future, as well as holding office at Association and branch level. He is currently researching his PhD on EU eastward enlargement.

Last week, as Tony Blair’s premiership was imploding on national television, I found myself thinking back to happier days for New Labour, and darker days for us.


An annus horribilis. Ousted from office and reviled by electors. Not a pleasant time to be a Tory. When I joined the Party during the 1997 General Election, I wondered if I would be one of the last.
Half the age of the next youngest member of my Association, I was encouraged to get involved with the Young Conservatives (YCs). In the 1950s, they had been hugely successful, but by 1997 their numbers were negligible.

In addition, they had become a ragbag of Tory Boys (and Girls) in dinner suits and ball gowns, opining in Sloaney tones about ‘rugger’ and ‘fizz’ and all things ‘powsh’ down at the ‘Howse’. More “rah” than a Thundercats movie.

Luckily I had joined at the tail-end of this organisation’s existence. I vividly remember my last experience of the YCs when, during the 1997 Conference, David Davies (now MP for Monmouth) cajoled me along to the last YC Ball.

As I stepped into the Ballroom in Moss Bros’ finest, I was confronted by a TV crew filming a group of YCs doing ‘The Can-Can’. This wasn’t an audition to star alongside Nicole Kidman’s Satine in the acclaimed ‘Moulin Rouge’ – this was not only a joke, but broadcast on national television.

For fear of being spotted, I retreated to a quiet corner with the only other “normal” person there (David Davies excluded!) – an equally-appalled girl from Chesterfield called Emma – and we both vowed never to go near the YCs again.

I returned from that Conference to concentrate on my Association, where when you’re the only member under 35 you tend to get feted as the “great white hope”. I tried to forget about the Party’s youth wing until, in 1998, Hague amalgamated the YCs, Students and Graduates into an all-encompassing organisation called…Conservative Future.

“Cee-eff” was designed to cast aside the Tory Boy image, replacing it with one of normal young people who just happened to be Conservatives.

Gone were the Gala Balls, in came events in trendy bars, boat parties where suits were taboo, and over-subscribed National Weekends on University campuses.

Policy discussions made way for BLAST (Beating Labour/Libdem Action Support Team) days, where CF members blitzed target seats.

Coupled with this was snazzy branding and novelty freebies (remember the Tony Blair “Smug” Mugs, which were to be joined by John Prescott “Thug” Mugs until CCO got cold feet!?) which certainly aided a more light-hearted approach to recruiting new members.

Being a young Tory had almost become hip and trendy, and being a member of CF was fun. As a result, CF was a roaring success, boosting membership from near nothing to near 15,000.
Between 1999 and 2002, it became a melting pot for the “Children of the Revolution” – the next generation of talented Conservatives that we now see coming through the system.

A-listers Hannah Parker and Andrew Stephenson (now selected for Pendle), and existing PPCs like Justin Tomlinson in North Swindon, are just the tip of the iceberg. This “golden era” has already bequeathed some of our brightest councillors – from Greg Smith and Paul Bristow in Hammersmith and Fulham, to Dave Sammels in Swindon and Emma Webster in Newbury – who along with the likes of former Convention President Richard Stephenson are the future.

However, CF has struggled at a local level. I was lucky. My Association Chairman was a huge supporter of involving young people in more than door-knocking, and we had sixty active CF members. The difference this made to campaigning was immense.

But not all Chairmen and Associations had the same foresight, with many preferring young people to be seen (ideally with a bundle of leaflets on a wet Saturday) rather than heard. As a result, in many areas, CF’s impact and influence, beyond social events, has ebbed away.

Which brings us to the here and now.

CF has, like the YCs before it, become a failing organisation. It’s lost a lot of its spark. Drastic reform is needed. Despite one-off notable successes – such as the Working Life Conference, providing YBF-style training to members – the missed opportunities are prolific.

This isn’t a criticism of CF’s excellent staff or the current team, but more a recognition that it’s time for a full makeover rather than some Polyfilla and a lick of emulsion.

The CF elections – a highlight in the calendar of young Tories for all the wrong reasons – are almost over, with three candidates for Chairman, each with very different ideas about its future. They are fighting for what might be the poisoned chalice of heading an organisation that, to borrow from John Reid, is no longer “fit for purpose”.

So, candidates – CF is drinking in the Last Chance Saloon. It’s last orders. The barman is about to take your glasses away. Whoever wins tomorrow, if you can restore CF to its former glory, you’ll have put the future back into our Party. If not, CF will follow the YCs into oblivion. It’s down to you.


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