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Rowan Cole: We should encourage more students and young people to become local councillors

Rowan Cole Rowan Cole is a Conservative Councillor for Walton-on-Thames and President of the University of Surrey Conservative Society. At 20 he was the youngest person ever elected to Elmbridge Council and currently balances that role with his time studying for a Politics degree.

Students across the country are becoming increasingly political, students activism has been at the forefront of democratic movements across the worlds for decades. Of the students who are becoming politically active there is an increasing subscription to the Conservative Party and Conservative Future is the largest political youth group in the country. But why are those under-25 so poorly represented and can a future Conservative government do anything about this?

Prior to going to University, in 2008 and at the age of 20, I was elected as a Councillor in Elmbridge Borough. When I decided to study at the University of Surrey I recall other Conservative members joking that I would leave a Liberal Democrat, or worse still a Labourite! Well so far that hasn’t happened, in fact quite the opposite. I find that I come across more students who identify with Conservative values and support the party than any other major party. Students do seem to identify themselves more with the Conservatives; three current students at Surrey, including myself, are Conservative Councillors.

Could it be that the University of Surrey is a fluke? Well I know of a Tory Councillor who is a student in Lincoln, and that is just one of many examples. Surrey University has societies for all three main political parties and the Conservatives, of which I am President, has clearly the greatest support on this campus and my colleagues around the country at other Universities would support that view.

We can use this support to our advantage. We must encourage more students to represent their communities on local Councils. After all, students are often in a position to dedicate more time to Council work than could be done by a full-time professional. According to the National Census of local authority Councillors 2008, the average age of a Councillor has increased from 55.4 years in 1997 to 58.8 years in 2008. Of all Councillors a massive 68.4% are men. The most shocking fact in my opinion, however, is that just 13.1% are aged under 45. Breaking that figure down further, just 110 Councillors are aged under 25 or 0.6%, of a base sample of 18,819.

The modern Conservatives should be using their representation on campuses across this country to increase the number of young people representing their wider communities. This is supposedly a representative democracy and yet those figures quoted clearly prove it isn’t. A Conservative government should address the issues that deter students from running for Council.

For example, the Time off For Public Duties Act provides a statutory framework that means employers must allow Councillors time away from work to perform public duties; that act does not cover students, and hence students cannot miss lectures and seminars to represent the public and may be penalised if they do. This is one situation that I feel needs to be urgently reviewed.

Perhaps it is that most people my age only ever remember a Labour government, and in recent times a failing one, and that’s why they support us. But whatever the reason may be, a Conservative government should use its time in office to get more young people and students represented at an elected level.


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