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A Conservative future ? Youth and the Conservative Party

Sarah Pickard
p. 75-93


Lors des élections législatives britanniques de 2005, environ 28 % des 18-24 ans qui ont participé au scrutin ont voté pour le Parti conservateur, contre 38 % pour le parti travailliste et 26 % pour le parti des libéraux démocrates. Clairement, le Parti conservateur n’était pas le premier choix de la plupart des jeunes électeurs, tout comme lors des élections de 2001 et 1997.

Cet article traitera des organisations passées et actuelles liées au Parti conservateur s'adressant plus particulièrement à la jeunesse, notamment Conservative Future, des efforts récents pour aller vers la jeunesse et les politiques récentes du Parti conservateur à l’égard des jeunes. Il tentera d’analyser les liens entre la jeunesse britannique et le Parti conservateur, afin d'établir si la droite menée par David Cameron pourrait améliorer la popularité du Parti conservateur chez les jeunes aux prochaines élections législatives qui doivent avoir lieu avant mai 2010.

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1In the 2005 British general election approximately 28% of 18-24 year-olds who took part voted for the Conservative Party, compared to 38% for the Labour Party and 26% for the Liberal Democrat Party (see Table 1 below). Clearly the Conservative Party was not the first choice for most young voters,1 nor was it the case in 2001 and 1997 when the figure is estimated to be just slightly lower at 27 %.2

2 What are the past and present organisations catering for young Conservatives ? What has the Conservative Party been doing in recent years to attract first time voters ? Why did young people vote (or not) for the Conservative Party in 2005 ? How has the context changed since the election of David Cameron at the head of the Tories ? This paper will discuss youth organisations that are specifically linked to the Conservative Party, in particular Conservative Future and recent Conservative Party policies aimed especially at young people. It will attempt to shed light on British youth and the Conservative Party in order to ascertain if the Tories, led by David Cameron, might increase its youth vote in the next general election due to take place before May 2010.

Table 1: Percentage of votes according to age group, 2005, 2001, 1997 British general elections












































Sources: MORI, Final Aggregate Analysis, (General Election), 16 May 2005.3MORI, How People Voted in 2001, 20 July 2001.4

A marriage bureau and a campaigning bureau in one

3One of the first British Conservative youth organisations dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century. The Junior Imperial and Constitutional Leaguewas created in 1906 to encourage interest in practical political work and Conservative policies among young people in Britain. It created a Junior Association in each Parliamentary Division which worked closely with the Conservative and Unionist Associations.

4The Young Britons Organisation (often called simply Young Britons) was then formed in 1925 as the juvenile branch of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations, only to fold during the Second World War. Following the end of the war and the defeat of the Conservative Party in the 1945 general election, Young Britons was reformed to cater for boys and girls aged 6-16, whilst over 16s were accommodated by the creation of the Federation of Conservative Students (FCS) and the Young Conservative and Unionist Organisation, usually called just the Young Conservatives or YC.5

  • 6  See : Evans, T.,Conservative Radicalism, Oxford, Bergahn Books, 1996.
  • 7  During the 2005 general election campaign Norman Tebbit declared that the FCS caused ‘grave damage (...)

5 The Federation of Conservative Students (FCS) was created as the official university-based student-wing of the Conservative Party, although many students were also members of YC. After 50 years of existence, it was disbanded in 1986 (when it had around 8,500 members), by the Conservative Party Chairman of the time Norman Tebbit (not renowned for his centre-ground stance) who considered it to be too extreme. For example, the FCS became well-known for its ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’ posters and badges, as well as, slogans such as ‘Execute Arthur Scargill !’, or ‘Smash the NHS !’. Indeed, prior to its demise, the FCS was dubbed ‘Maggie's Militant Tendency’, as during the 1980s it had become controlled by a libertarian extremist faction6 that entertained far right-wing politics, in much the same way as the political organisation Militant (Militant Tendency) espoused extreme left-wing tendencies during the same period.7 After 1986 the FCS was temporarily replaced by The National Association of Conservative Graduates (NACG), an official organisation under the wing of the Youth Department at Conservative Campaign Headquarters (formerly Conservative Central Office).

6Parallel to the Federation of Conservative Students was the Young Conservatives which became hugely popular during the 1950s, claiming more than 150,000 members by 1955, later peaking at 250,000. Its popularity was largely attributed to the vibrant social activities it organised which brought together like-minded young people – mainly middle-class conservatives – at popular and safe social events such as dances, walks and charity events. However, its association with a lively social world ultimately played a major role in its downfall. Indeed, during the Thatcher premiership YC became ever more linked to the largely pejorative concepts of ‘Tory Boy’, ‘Hooray Henrys’ and ‘Tory toffs’. These negative stereotypes of self-centred upper middle-class youth on a completely different wavelength to a majority of contemporary British youngsters were very damaging to the image of YC. Thus, the new and young (37) party leader William Hague disbanded the outdated and much-criticized organisation in 1998, by which time its membership had dropped to around 3,500.

7Thus, the combination of images of the 1980s and 1990s of reactionary extreme right-wing policies of the Federation of Conservative Students and the young Thatcherite upper middle-class bow-tie drunken balls and food-fights of the Young Conservatives meant young Tories were often considered by outsiders to be a nasty, selfish and out of touch minority and thus a source of media mockery (c.f. Harry Enfield’s comic impersonations of ‘Tory Boy’ in the 1990s). These stereotypes contributed to a rapid decline in the membership and ultimately the closure of both organisations by senior members of the Conservative Party. It became understood by party hierarchy that these negative stereotypes of young Thatcherite Conservatives encapsulated by ‘Tory Boy’ would have to be jettisoned in favour of a more moderate set up both in terms of its politics and social events.

Three new Conservative youth organisations since 1998

8The turnaround in young Conservative organisations came during the 1998 Conservative Party Annual Conference, when William Hague launched ‘Conservative Futures’, which later became abbreviated to Conservative Future (CF). CF is now the one and only official youth organisation of the British Conservative and Unionist Party. It thus groups together all members (students and non-students) of the Conservative Party under 30. Anyone under 30 years of age who joins the Conservative Party automatically becomes a CF member. Conservative Future is run by an eight-member ‘national team’- the national chairman, plus seven other members of the National Management Executive who are elected on an annual basis. The team claims to represent the membership and implements its aims and objectives, ‘to contribute to the future of the country, and help the Conservatives win the next election’.8 CF also benefits from the services of a full-time member of staff at Conservative Campaign Headquarters known as the ‘National Organiser’ (currently Sarah Southern).

  • 9  Former Parliamentary Researcher to Philip Bradbourn MEP and to Bill Wiggin MP.
  • 10  Nick Vaughan in an interview shortly after he became CF national chairman in 2005.

9 On joining Conservative Future, members agree to the four basic ‘principles’ of the Conservative Party : 1) Freedom, 2) Enterprise, 3) Responsibility and 4) Nation. Members of CF have a vote in the election of the leader of the Conservative Party. According to the CF website members also have ‘a vote on key policy ideas for the next General Election’ and ‘a direct influence in the development of Party policies’, as well as, ‘invitations to specially organised local, national and international social and political events’ and ‘regular Party communications and details of CF events and campaigns’ (January 2006). These two aspects, political and social, sum up well the bipolar character of CF. On the one hand, it is a political organisation and on the other a social organisation, still bringing together like-minded young people to politicize (a campaigning bureau) and to socialize (a modern marriage bureau). In this way, it is undoubtedly trying to promote a more well-balanced image of itself than its predecessors. On the political side, the emphasis is laid on its influence and the scope of the organisation to change things, although it is not clear how ; it is claimed that there are regular group discussions and meetings with politicians. On the social side, there are plenty of pictures on the websites of jovial young people having fun … presumably at the CF events being advertised. According to lucid Nick Vaughan, the current national chairman (October 2005-2006),9 the social events are both a means to attract new members and to create a good campaigning atmosphere, ‘Good social events are a key priority. One of the first things I learnt as Area Chairman for Herefordshire and Shropshire was that for every one social event that attracted around 150-200 people we would gain on average 2-3 'hardcore' campaigners/CF activists as a result. […] CF needs to be a leading outfit for top social events, which in turn, will promote camaraderie and team spirit ; and ultimately a group of young people who are eager to work as a dynamic and effective campaign team’.10

10Most Conservative associations in towns have affiliated Conservative Future branches catering mainly for non-students and most British universities have CF branches too. In 2003 CF won its first executive position (the block of 12 executive committee members) since Tony Blair and New Labour came to power in the traditionally left-wing National Union of Students (NUS). This selection demonstrates the increasing popularity of CF at universities in recent years ; however this status would seem to be directly linked to the Conservative Party’s previous position on tuition fees (see below).

  • 11  Written reply to the author from Jonathan Ash-Edwards, Local Government & Campaigning for Conserva (...)

11Conservative Future is now regularly described in the media as the largest youth group affiliated to a British political party. Its membership is quoted as being 10,000 or more frequently as 15,000 ; CF itself uses the latter figure ‘as an educated estimate’, admitting it is ‘unable to give a definite number’ due to ‘the current membership management system’.11In fact, in the past local associations did not note the ages of members on joining. Moreover, it is also important to distinguish between active CF members – those who specifically join CF and those who become members when joining the Conservative Party by virtue of being under 30. Undoubtedly its membership has steadily increased since its creation in 1998, and it was boosted with the Conservative pledge to abolish university tuition fees. CF also claims that the number of members has increased with the arrival of 39-year-old David Cameron at the head of the Conservative Party. Indeed, one of David Cameron’s first visits after being elected Tory leader on 6 December 2005 was to Conservative Future in Hereford 10 days later, where he delivered his keynote speech, during which he invited Liberal Democrats to switch to the Conservative Party.

12 For a youth-based organisation, the main CF website, which was relaunched in February 2004 following a redesign by Fresca who also rebranded the Conservative Party website, seems remarkably un-young and un-trendy both in its appearance and content.

13First, much of the information contained on the site is out of date, e.g. the chairman’s name, comments on forthcoming May 2004 elections in January 2006, names of Conservative Party ministers, etc. and it was still promoting the anti-tuition fees position of the Conservative Party in March 2006 – over 2 months after the policy U-turn undertaken by David Cameron at the beginning of January 2006. Moreover, at the beginning of March 2006, CF ‘latest news’ was over 2 months old …

  • 12  Justine Greening MP consistently abstained from answering the author’s requests (via letters and e (...)

14Second, there are unflattering photographs of Conservative MPs on the opening page which lead to the said MPs’ ‘answers to questions’. For example, under a picture of herself Justine Greening MP (Putney) reveals that the last film she saw was Stars Wars, her favourite sport is tennis, she could not live without her mobile phone and that she likes cooking Chinese food, but that she has not ‘given anyone food poisoning yet !’. We also discover that her political hero is Margaret Thatcher. No mention is made of youth, youth politics, her age, etc., despite the fact that she is just 26 and that she was the youngest MP to be elected in the May 2005 general election.12 Moreover, in December 2005, David Cameron appointed her as a Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party, with responsibility for youth. It is hard to believe that the questions asked by CF and the answers given would be of interest, let alone an inspiration, to potential young voters or candidates.

  • 13  See : Pickard, S., op. cit.

15Third, in the ‘Issues’ section on the website, no mention is made of specific youth issues – current ‘issues’ in March 2006 included ‘council taxes’ and the ‘arming of police’ which, in general, are hardly burning issues for young people who consistently mention education, student-debt, crime and the environment as key issues for them. None of these matters are mentioned in the ‘issues’ section of the website.13

16 Fourth, the websites of local branches are kept even less up to date in general and are definitely more orientated towards promoting social gatherings … with an emphasis on alcohol consumption and ‘fun’. For example, on the Leeds University CF website we are encouraged to ‘Join LUU CF ! We're the best party on campus !’.14

  • 15  Michael Howard, when Conservative Party leader, December 2004.
    ‘Conservative Future is playing a cr (...)

17 Whilst CF is thus the official youth-wing of the Conservative Party from which it receives support,15 there are two other – less moderate and newer – organisations which cater for young right-wingers : the Young Britons' Foundation (YBF) and Wave Network.

18The Young Britons' Foundation (YBF) was created in July 2003 by former Tory MP Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge, 1983-2001) and two young Tory activists, Donal Blaney (now executive President) and Greg Smith.16 The YBF declares itself to be independent from all political parties, non-partisan and to be funded entirely by private donations and sponsors, although there has been some speculation on this matter due to the organisation’s highly polished website and its Regent Street headquarters in London. It advances itself as a ‘not-for-profit educational, research and training institute that promotes conservative ideas, fosters entrepreneurial spirit and encourages national pride in schools, colleges and universities’.17 It claims to identify, recruit, educate and train future leaders in the conservative movement. Its Statement of Principles is the following : ‘a) a belief in the individual, left free to run and be responsible for their own lives, b) a belief in free markets for a prosperous, strong economy with low taxes and minimum public spending, c) a belief in nationhood and country, where democracy rests at the national level, d) a belief in the rule of law and a strong national defence, with liberty protected and freedom secured’. These principles are very similar indeed to the four Conservative Party basic principles (see above).

19 There are four key strands to the Young Britons' Foundation’s activities, which aim ‘to develop the talents of the next generation of conservatives’ : a) training of activists via an annual Activist Training Conference and regular advanced training days with 150 ‘graduates’ to date. Training domains include : media skills and interview techniques, public speaking and debating, image presentation, modern political campaigning, and the historical foundations of modern conservatism, b) speakers' panels at sixth-form colleges and universities, ‘to ensure that the centre-right alternative view is available to all young people’, c) an innovative job bank for students and graduates, whereby young people can be matched with and apply for work experience and employment opportunities with politicians, journalists and other figures in public life, d) YBF Publishing. In this way, the YBF openly follows the thinking and strategy of some American think-tanks, in particular The Young America's Foundation, The Collegiate Network and Accuracy in Academia that emphasize the role of training young Republican activists in order to increase the party’s chances of electoral success. Similarly, inspired by American political youth organisations, in November 2003, YBF launched a programme to counter ‘left-wing bias’ in academia in which students are encouraged to denounce the ‘indoctrination’ of teachers and tutors and to point out when they consider they have been marked down and suffered bias due to the expression of right-wing views.

  • 18  Richard Hilton, former member of Conservative Future's national executive.
  • 19  Donal Blaney was Chairman of the NACG (1997-1998). He was then CF chairman (1998-1999) as nominate (...)

20 Soon after its creation in 2003 the Young Britons' Foundation was accused by senior Tories of planning a ‘Militant-style’ take-over of CF (subsequently denied by Donal Blaney) and it is regularly criticised for being a ‘step backwards’ to the reactionary politics of the past.18 Such nervousness amongst Tory managers obviously harks back to excesses of the 1980s of the Federation of Conservative Students (FCS) (see above). It is also fuelled by the animated past of founder member Donal Blaney who was accused of racism, and who subsequently received a complaint from the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), when, as a local councillor in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham (until 2002), he ran a campaign called ‘Fulham Homes for Fulham People’ against asylum seekers. At that time Blaney was the first chairman of the newly-created Conservative Future.19

21 But not all Tory seniors criticize the Young Britons' Foundation and it has some influential friends. For example, the foundation's parliamentary council includes Cecil Parkinson (former Conservative Party chairman, 1981-1983 & 1997-1998), David Davis (2005 Conservative Party leader candidate and current shadow Home Secretary) who spoke at the YBF's activist training conference in 2003, Gerald Howarth MP (Aldershot) and author Frederick Forsyth. Speakers at the 2005 YBF training course included former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith MP and Liam Fox MP (Woodspring). Thus, whilst claiming to be independent it has strong ties with the Conservative Party, the re-election of which seems to be the foundation’s primary aim.

22 The recently created Wave Network is the other major organisation aimed at young right-wing people ; it has more formal links with the mother party although, revealingly, it is not eager to discuss them. Wave Network also emphasizes that it receives no funding from Central Office and has no obligations towards it. Moreover, it seems to make a concerted effort to avoid mentioning the Conservative Party in its publication Wave Magazine. It considers its role as to stimulate more grass-roots engagement amongst young people for the Tories as part of its bid to modernize the Conservative Party and make it become electable once again. To this end, it tends to portray itself as a hip ‘community engagement organisation that was set up to bring politicians closer to the public’, in particular to modern, urban culture. It does so by initiating small-scale, local community and internet projects. Thus, in June 2005 it launched, in conjunction with the Conservative Party, an initiative called Urban Phoenix, ‘a bold attempt to resuscitate political action in cities across the U.K.’.20 The idea of Wave Network’s Urban Phoenix is that local political parties and prospective candidates should use their resources within a local community in order to develop start-up social projects, or to deliver programmes for existing charities, so as to show what they can do prior to being elected and to thus gain public trust. As yet, the programme remains small-scale with Rishi Saha, former Conservative candidate in Brent South and Director of Wave Network, creating an advertising scheme for a community radio station : Life FM, and James Bethell, former Ministry of Sound director, setting up a consultancy group to give voluntary groups access to professional skills of local Conservatives.

23This small-scale organisation, with an undeclared membership has an original hands-on approach to getting the Conservative Party elected whilst contradictorily distancing itself from it. Wave Network declares itself to be ‘very socially liberal’ ; it seems to be more in tune with David Cameron’s ‘modern compassionate Conservative Party’ and the aspirational ‘social mobility’ that the new Tory leader boasts about. There is a heavy emphasis on the image of the organisation and its attempts to attract more ‘normal’ young people (as opposed to the members of Conservative Future and Young Britons’ Foundation although they are not specifically mentioned) and the importance for the Conservative Party to do the same. It is clear that its potential membership is somewhat different to the public of Conservative Future and YBF. Conversely, the pro-active YBF is undoubtedly a competitor of CF as they are both contending for support from traditional young right-wingers. The more radical YBF is more forward thinking, more centralised, more pragmatic and seems better organised than the moderate CF. In the YBF the emphasis is laid on the importance of having well-trained, media savvy campaigners and candidates in order to modernize the Conservative Party and get it elected. However, there is a certain amount of cross-over between the two organisations with hard core Conservative supporters being involved in both.21

24 Through Conservative Future, Young Briton’s Foundation and Wave Network, all born within the last decade, we witness three different youth organizations all aiming to get a more modern Conservative Party elected. What has the Conservative Party itself been doing in recent years to attract young voters, in terms of its attempts to reach out to youth and its youth policy ?

Getting down with and reaching out to the kids

  • 22  He is, of course, famous for his speech at Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool in 1977 when (...)

25At the launch of Conservative Future in October 1998 William Hague, the then Tory party leader in his late thirties, declared the Conservatives to be the ‘natural party of youth’. At the time, the average age of members was approximately 64, according to party activists. William Hague also boasted that by the next general election (2001) half the membership would be under-40. However, he made very little effort to achieve this. His most obvious attempts to charm the younger generation was when he wore a baseball cap with 'HAGUE' emblazoned on it during a trip to a theme park and attending the Notting Hill Carnival prior to the 2001 election.22 His very superficial attempts ‘to get down with the kids’ were ridiculed as desperate and ill-judged efforts to be ‘cool’. Concretely, he did little to attract the young, apart from creating CF, despite being relatively young himself.

  • 23  May 2003 : focussing upon the work of voluntary organisations for young people ; March 2004 : diff (...)
  • 24  Maria Miller MP directly shadows Maria Eagle MP and Beverly Hughes MP at the Department for Educat (...)

26 Subsequently, his successor, Iain Duncan Smith (leader 2001-2003) launched ‘Politics Unplugged’ in the autumn of 2002 ; Conservative MPs toured universities and colleges to listen to students in order to attract the student vote. Furthermore, at the September 2002 Conservative Party conference he allowed Conservative Future to organise a ‘Chill-out room’ in order to appeal to younger activists. Iain Duncan Smith then called CF members up onto the stage at the end of his speech at the spring forum in Harrogate (2003), so he could pose for pictures with them. The Tory leader also nominated the first Conservative Party spokesperson on youth, Charles Hendry, who became Shadow Minister for Young People in February 2002. He had a very suitable background, since from 1992 to 1997 he was President of the British Youth Council and patron of the UK Youth Parliament. Charles Hendry initiated The Youth Affairs Bulletin in August 2002, an apolitical, monthly consultation bulletin sent to approximately 4,000 youth organisations nationwide, providing them with news from Westminster, information about his visits to youth groups, and issue-focused surveys (both for young people and the leaders of the organisations). He also initiated a series of Parliamentary ‘Youth Summits’ to address key issues affecting young people.23 Charles Hendry kept his position under Michael Howard and was a very definite force for good for the young, although he left few concrete achievements behind when David Cameron removed him from his position in January 2006. His successor, Maria Miller MP (Basingstoke), Shadow Minister for Children, Young People and Families,24 has yet to take any initiatives. Thus Iain Duncan Smith did make a certain, all be it limited, effort to reach out to youth.

27 This can not be really said of his successor Michael Howard who, despite his saying otherwise in a letter to the author, did not try to connect with the young during his leadership of 2003-2005. In January 2006, in reply to the author’s questions on the Conservative Party’s youth policy, Michael Howard wrote, ‘Conservative Future is a vibrant youth organisation which is why it was set up. Under my leadership, the excellent start we’d made under Iain Duncan Smith continued and we came [sic] the leading political party in the universities in England’.

28Thus the young have been largely ignored by the Conservative Party in recent years despite Tory claims of ‘reaching out’ to them. Efforts have been few, ill-adapted and superficial. What about Tory youth policy during the same period ?

Youth policy for the old

  • 25  For a detailed analysis of youth policy in the 2005 general election, see : See : Pickard, S., op. (...)

29 The study of the Conservative Party and youth policy reveals that the party does not believe in a specific youth-orientated policy, i.e. it is of the belief that no specific issues interest young people in particular ; the younger generation is interested in the same policies as older generations, but education involves youth more directly.25This is neatly summed up in Michael Howard’s reply to the author on the issue, ‘All the policies of the Conservative Party affect the young but I suppose our policies on education are particularly relevant’. This stance is mirrored by Conservative Future ; CF does not campaign on issues especially related to young people and in written answer to the author’s questions a spokesman replied that young people are interested in the same issues as their parents.

  • 26  Conservative Party manifesto 2005, It’s Time for Action, 13.

30In fact, there were issues linked to young people mentioned in the 2005 Conservative Party manifesto apart from education. But they did not seem to be aimed at attracting the young with specific youth polices that would please them. For example, the manifesto spoke of curbing binge-drinking, drug abuse, youth crime, delinquency and sexually transmitted diseases of which the ‘epidemic’ was described thus, ‘today’s sexually transmitted infections are tomorrow’s NHS bills’.26 There was also a pledge to scrap the New Deal without saying how it would be replaced. Thus, for Michael Howard’s Conservative Party, young people were more associated with problematic situations, that needed to be solved, than with being valuable members of society having specific needs and potential.

  • 27  From September 2006, new students in England and Northern Ireland (Wales in 2007) will be charged (...)
  • 28  The NUS condemned the Conservative plans. Its vice-president, Hannah Essex, said at the time, ‘Any (...)
  • 29  Paul Bristow Conservative Future chairman to Education Guardian, 3 August 2004. (...)

31 Regarding the issue of higher education, the only policy of particular relevance to the young according to Michael Howard, in 2003 the Conservative Party pledged to abolish the target set by the Labour Party to get 50 % of 18-30 year-olds into some form of higher education by 2010. More importantly, it also promised to drop tuition fees that were introduced in 1999 by New Labour declaring they were ‘a tax on learning’. Prior to the May 2005 general election, Michael Howard said that the lost income would be recouped by increasing the interest rate on maintenance loans by 2 % (taking it above inflation).27The 2005 manifesto claimed that the plans would raise as much money for the universities as the Labour government's plans for top-up fees, but leave students better off.28 In August 2004 Conservative Future chairman Paul Bristow said, ‘I think students will be delighted by this [Tory policy]. This is the best possible deal students will get. They pay loans back in the end but the crippling upfront fee is not there any longer’.29 Conservative Future reiterated its opposition to tuition fees in October 2005, ‘We’re anti-top-up fees’ declared Nick Vaughan just before becoming the organisation’s new national chairman, ‘top-up fees are excessive. Should we penalise people for learning ? No’.

32 This anti-tuition fees policy was always difficult for the Conservative Party to defend ; firstly, many observers suggested the maths simply did not add up. Secondly, critics indicated that such a policy would be unfair on students going on to lower paid jobs (nurses, teachers) and those leaving paid work to have children. Thirdly, and much more importantly from a conceptual angle, the policy was somewhat at odds with traditional Conservative market-driven stance. On the contrary, tuition fees seem to be a natural Tory policy and opposition to them more a question of political opportunism in order to counter the Labour Party.

  • 30  There was a drop of 3.4 % in the number of students applying to go to university in September 2006 (...)

33On 9 January 2006, one month after his election as party leader, David Cameron announced to a class of sixth-form students in Basildon, that the Conservative Party would make a complete policy U-turn by keeping student tuition fees if elected. He announced, ‘I'm afraid I think we're going to have to keep student fees, and I'll tell you why. You want to go to universities that are well-funded, [with] good tutors ; good facilities and I want as many people who think they're going to benefit from university to be able to go. If you want those things – and as you also know we've also got to keep taxes down in this country – the money's got to come from somewhere. […] Yes, I'm afraid students are going to have to make a contribution’. On the same day, David Cameron also made it known that there should be no upper limit on the number of students in higher education. He also ruled out reinstating grammar schools, ‘I want to say absolutely clearly, the Conservative Party that I am leading does not want to go back to the 11-plus, does not want to go back to the grammar school system’. He also scrapped another manifesto pledge for ‘pupil passports’. In this way, in one fell swoop, David Cameron abandoned or reversed all the key planks of the education policy of the 2005 manifesto, which he himself wrote for Michael Howard as head of policy co-ordination in the Shadow cabinet. Thus the main higher education policies of the Conservative Party and the Labour Party are now very similar.30

34 Having lambasted the Labour Party for introducing tuition fees and for breaching its previous election promises, whilst boasting about the Conservative Party’s anti-tuition fee stance, and encouraging anti-tuition fee lobbying, the Conservative Party and Conservative Future now find themselves in an awkward position following the U-turn. The reversal might also influence the membership numbers of CF and votes for the Conservative Party. However, it should be pointed out that the party received only 1 % more of the youth vote in 2005 that in 2001 (see Table 1). The Liberal Democrats campaigned hard on the anti-tuition fees slate and they increased their proportion of the youth vote in 2005. However, some of this is attributable to their unique anti-War in Iraq position which was popular among many young people. It can also be noted that only a minority of young people go on to higher education and so the tuition fee policy did not affect a majority of the younger generation and so may have had only a limited influence on the Tory youth vote.

35 However, even education does not feature as one of David Cameron’s recently announced priorities. A short time ago he revealed, ‘These are the six big challenges I believe we face. They're complex, interconnected and require serious long-term thinking. I want to make sure we get these challenges right, and that means listening to the views of as many different people as possible’.31 Cameron’s 6 Challenges are : 1) economic competitiveness, 2) improving our quality of life, 3) public service improvement, 4) protecting our security, 5) social justice, 6) globalisation and global poverty. None of these six challenges specifically concern young people (contrary to 3 of the 5 famous pledges made by New Labour in the 1997 and 2001 general elections). Cameron is thus continuing with the Conservative stance that young people do not form a specific electoral group.

36As for David Cameron reaching out to the young, it is still early days, but, in January 2006 he launched a ‘Youth Community Action Programme’ in order to encourage young people to serve their local community after school and before starting work or higher education. He declared, ‘Every school leaver would have to do 3-4 months of voluntary work in the community. […] What I’m trying to do is encourage people to do something together. In the wake of 7/7 I got to thinking about what we can do to draw people together and I think this would be a very positive way of nurturing that sense of community spirit’. Whilst the programme is obviously still in its embryonic stages, its appeal to young people is already ambiguous and not an obvious youth-vote winner due to its obligatory nature and its hints of National Service.


37 Since New Labour was elected in 1997, the percentage of young people voting for the Conservative Party has remained stable at around 27 %-28 %. This is despite the creation of Conservative Future, changes of party leaders and a popular anti-tuition fee policy in 2005.

38 The problem for the Conservative Party regarding the youth vote seems to be two-fold : the ‘Tory Boy’ past and policies.

39First, Conservative Future still has to contend with the ‘Tory Boy’ legacy of the 1980s and 1990s. Whilst it is more moderate than its predecessors, CF still comes across as a rather nerdy, un-ethnically diverse, male-orientated organisation that is largely unrepresentative of British youth. If the Conservative Party hopes to attract young people through a modern and dynamic youth organisation, a decent website with an improved design and contents including information on youth issues that really do ‘involve young people in politics’ would seem to be essential, rather than one with abstract and certainly exaggerated claims about influencing politicians, along with out of date news and ‘naff’ interviews.

  • 32  There are more votes to be gained by appealing to the ‘grey generation’ than the ‘Blair generation (...)

40Second, the Tories do not have a joined-up youth policy that is pro-youth. Most policies specifically affecting the young in the 2005 Conservative manifesto were not vote winners with the young themselves, but were there to please the old ; the ‘grey vote’ has four times the voting power of the youth vote and so the Conservative Party tends to target pensioners during election campaigning.32To many young people the Conservative Party comes across as old, uncaring and untrendy.

  • 33  He worked at the Conservative Research Department during the leaderships of Margaret Thatcher and (...)
  • 34  His friend George Osborne, born 1971, Oxford University, MP (Tatton), Shadow Chancellor of the Exc (...)

41 The arrival at the end of 2005 of David Cameron (MP for Witney in Oxfordshire), at the head of the Conservative Party, in theory, would not change this problematic context of the Tories.33 On the contrary, as an old Etonian, Oxford graduate David Cameron, is the epitome of a Tory Hooray Henry.34 However, this young (39) highly media savvy urbanite was also Head of corporate affairs at Carlton Communications (1994-2001). He seems determined to modernize the Conservative Party, in much the same way the Labour Party transformed itself in the 1990s when it removed Clause 4 from its constitution. Indeed, the cycling and recycling, open-shirted ‘Dave’ is very obviously trying to rejuvenate the image of the Tories, giving it a makeover into a ‘modern compassionate Conservative Party’. If anyone can shake off the negative stereotypes of the Tories and make it hip to vote for an inclusive Conservative Party, he can. His emphasis on global poverty, the environment, etc. certainly captures the mood of the times. But the image change will have to be met by actions to reach out to the young and positive youth policies to match.

42During the 2004 annual Conservative Party Conference, 17 year-old Jessica Lever (great-niece of Milton Freidman), the youngest female ever to address a Tory conference, urged prospective MPs to go out and visit schools and colleges and woo young voters. She declared that it was up to politicians to make politics matter to young people, saying, ‘We want to hear the Tory message... so come and talk to us.’ When he was 16 years old William Hague affirmed much the same during his speech at the Blackpool Conservative Party conference of 1977, one whole generation ago… when David Cameron was himself young (and conservative ?).

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1  Voter turnout among young people in 2005 was estimated at an all time low of 37% in 2005 (compared to a national average of 61.4%) and 39% in 2001.
See : Pickard, S., « The Blair Generation – The Youth Vote in the 2005 General Election », in /Les élections législatives de 2005 au Royaume-Uni, Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique, volume XIII – n° 3, CRECIB, PSN, automne 2005, 21-32.

2 May 2005.

3, May 2005.

4 March 2006.

5 Party Archive : Youth Organisations 1905-1970/1985, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. December 2005.

6  See : Evans, T.,Conservative Radicalism, Oxford, Bergahn Books, 1996.

7  During the 2005 general election campaign Norman Tebbit declared that the FCS caused ‘grave damage’ to the Conservative cause within universities during the 1980s, due to radical ‘loony-Right libertarian politics’ under the chairmanship of Mark MacGregor who was an unsuccessful Conservative Party candidate in 2005.

8 March 2006.

9  Former Parliamentary Researcher to Philip Bradbourn MEP and to Bill Wiggin MP.

10  Nick Vaughan in an interview shortly after he became CF national chairman in 2005.

11  Written reply to the author from Jonathan Ash-Edwards, Local Government & Campaigning for Conservative Future, December 2005.

12  Justine Greening MP consistently abstained from answering the author’s requests (via letters and emails) for answers to questions on youth issues apart from writing, ‘If we are able to adequately address the issues most concerning young people, they will choose the Conservative Party’. 18 January 2006. She did not say what those issues are.

13  See : Pickard, S., op. cit.

14 Leeds University Union Conservative Future.

15  Michael Howard, when Conservative Party leader, December 2004.
‘Conservative Future is playing a crucial role in the party's march back to government. […] Younger people are looking towards the Conservative Party with a new sense of optimism and confidence for the future’.

16  The current Chairman of The Young Britons' Foundation is Conor Burns.

17 December 2005.

18  Richard Hilton, former member of Conservative Future's national executive.

19  Donal Blaney was Chairman of the NACG (1997-1998). He was then CF chairman (1998-1999) as nominated by Cecil Parkinson. He then went on to launch YBA in 2003 where is the current executive President. He is also an executive member of The Way Forward.

20 December 2005.

21  Counterpart political youth organisations today include the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS), the Socialist Workers Student Society (SWSS), the Liberal Democrat Youth and Student (LDYS), the Campaign for Free Education (CFE), the Student Broad Left (SBL), the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) and the Federation of Students' Islamic Societies (FOSIS).

22  He is, of course, famous for his speech at Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool in 1977 when just 16 years-old (see below). He went on to become President of the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA).

23  May 2003 : focussing upon the work of voluntary organisations for young people ; March 2004 : difficulties and issues facing young gay men, lesbians and bisexuals ; January 2005 : young people and crime.

24  Maria Miller MP directly shadows Maria Eagle MP and Beverly Hughes MP at the Department for Education and Skills.

25  For a detailed analysis of youth policy in the 2005 general election, see : See : Pickard, S., op. cit.

26  Conservative Party manifesto 2005, It’s Time for Action, 13.

27  From September 2006, new students in England and Northern Ireland (Wales in 2007) will be charged a variable tuition fee of up to £3,000 a year. Students can take out a loan which must be repaid at 9p per annum on each pound earned, plus an inflation rate linked interest-rate, after graduation if earnings reach over £15,000. Regarding rent and living costs, financial support comes in the form of grants, loans and bursaries. Means-tested maintenance grants of up to £2,700 a year will be available which do not have to be paid back. Maintenance loans will also be on offer, with 75 % of the full amount available to all and the rest tailored to where one studies and how much grant one receives. The maximum annual amounts will be £3,415 for students living at home, £4,405 for those living away from home and studying outside London, and £6,170 for students living away from home in London. Bursaries are also available ; every institution charging the full £3,000 must offer at least £300 to students on the full grant.

28  The NUS condemned the Conservative plans. Its vice-president, Hannah Essex, said at the time, ‘Any increase in the interest rate of student loan repayments would prolong the lifespan of debt and punish those who need to take out the maximum loan, which is often students from low-income backgrounds’.

29  Paul Bristow Conservative Future chairman to Education Guardian, 3 August 2004.,,1275101,00.html

30  There was a drop of 3.4 % in the number of students applying to go to university in September 2006. It is the first time in 6 years that university applications have fallen in England ; almost 13,000 fewer students applied for courses than in September 2005. This corresponds to the introduction of variable tuition fees up to £3,000 (up from £1,175) across England. Conversely, admissions to universities in Wales and Scotland, where variable tuition fees have not been introduced, have not dropped.

31 ?def January 2006.

32  There are more votes to be gained by appealing to the ‘grey generation’ than the ‘Blair generation’. There are twice as many adults of pensionable age than young people eligible to vote for the first time. The over-65s make up 21 % of the electorate (compared to 11 % for 18-24 year-olds) and their turnout increased by 5 % in 2005 to 75 %..The older generation is thus twice as likely to vote as the younger generation.

33  He worked at the Conservative Research Department during the leaderships of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, he then worked as Chancellor Norman Lamont's special adviser during Black Wednesday (1992) and then for Mr Howard at the Home Office. He sprang straight into Howard’s Shadow cabinet as head of policy co-ordination.

34  His friend George Osborne, born 1971, Oxford University, MP (Tatton), Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, similarly fits the bill. Other similar Conservative MPs include Edward Vaizey MP (Wantage) (born 1968, Oxford University, advertising executive), Nick Hurd MP (Ruislip-Northwood) (born 1962, Oxford University) and Greg Clark MP (Tunbridge Wells), (born 1967, Cambridge University).

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Sarah Pickard, « A Conservative future ? Youth and the Conservative Party »Observatoire de la société britannique, 4 | 2007, 75-93.

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Sarah Pickard, « A Conservative future ? Youth and the Conservative Party »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 4 | 2007, mis en ligne le 01 février 2011, consulté le 21 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Sarah Pickard

Maître de Conférences à l'Université de Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle

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