Whenever the curtain is pulled back on youthful political activism, the picture is ugly. Three years ago, in Young, Bright and On the Right, the BBC followed students at Oxbridge fighting like vipers to get ahead in their university Conservative clubs. Along with the inevitable three-piece suits, wildly invented accents and endless talk of what ‘the party’ expected, there was also that characteristic lack of awareness that ‘the party’, like the rest of the world, remained largely indifferent to them.
Now the suicide of a 21-year-old called Elliott Johnson has brought this world back before the public gaze. Every detail speaks of a scene which is unpleasant even before it is tragic. Anyone who has been involved in student politics or observed it from a distance will recognise the traits: the hysterical insistence on loyalty, the pettiness, double-dealing, levels of corruption to shame most third-world leaders and always, but always, the endless threats by everyone to sue everyone else.
As certain young activists and even advisers around the current Labour leadership demonstrate, the submersion of young lives (especially those of slight misfits) into the sense of ‘belonging’ that a party can provide is not an exclusively Conservative issue. Young Liberal Democrats may find it difficult to find a quorum these days, but young Labour activists continue to be more than capable of pouring their youthful envies and frustrations into the party.
Nevertheless there is something undeniably specific about the noxiousness of young Conservative politics. Perhaps because it is fuelled by people who think that House of Cards is a guide for getting ahead in business and politics. While young leftists tend to be propelled by envy, those on the right tend to be driven by greed, especially a greed for power and money, in that order.
Bypassing the political and philosophical misapprehensions which give rise to this idea, the manner in which they pursue their goal is pitiful. Contrary to the left-wing conspiracy theory, the world is no longer controlled — if it ever was — by an ‘establishment’ of cigar-smokers and port-drinkers. Yet while the left conjures this vision of the closed room of power in order to disdain it, many a youthful Conservative believes it only to emulate it. Thus the fashion accoutrements, the snobbery and the unsuccessful and often shameful sublimation of normal youthful feelings and behaviour.
You can observe the results in those London clubs which struggle for members and so offer special rates for young blood. Clubs like the National Liberal and the East India hold out this allure of power even as they flounder. Yet any memory of power in these establishments is as distant as the whiff of cigar smoke — long ago replaced by the smell of Cif. But the youthful Tory does not always know this. Nor do they know that the policies of the British Conservative party are not created at the bar of the Carlton Club. And though youth activists may salivate, and more, at the chance to meet a backbench MP, such people no more signal the presence of power than does the presence of a retired schoolteacher.
Of course there are always MPs delighted to enjoy the attentions of people labouring under these misapprehensions. But in the ordinary run of things anyone capable of making such mistakes would be kept a million miles from any political campaign — certain as they are they to scare voters into the arms of any other party. And while all the parties are suffering a lack of active members, the Conservative party’s reliance on thirtysomethings to run its youth wing does epitomise its own peculiar problem.
It remains the party’s own fault that it cannot put together a campaign made up of ordinary people campaigning in an ordinary way rather than bussing the same young activists around everywhere to wave placards behind the Prime Minister. But it is the public and media’s fault as well. Every meeting of a politician with a real-life person is now turned into such a potential liability that politicians increasingly keep clear of ordinary people and rely on activists to surround them with the veneer of the public. These activists — like donors — must have something waved before them, otherwise why agree to be bussed between stump-speech and platitudinous stump-speech? It is easy to see how the illusion of secret routes to power can form in such an environment, and how it might be used by charlatans to manipulate the naive.
Such people dangle promises before the young and ambitious like a key. They imply that, if won, this key will open a silver lock in a golden door giving into a room in which all their ambitions will be satiated. The Johnson story is replete with such dangled promises. As Isabel Hardman has pointed out, the promise of a guaranteed ‘safe seat’ is one such myth — a myth because today, when it comes to the selection process, local associations are more likely to hold a party careerist’s history against them than nod them through for it. The allegation that senior party members can be held responsible for the suicide of one activist is outrageous, but everybody in the party benefited from the charade which inspired him.
And charade it is. Westminster is largely populated by people who are not even legends in their own homes. They are people who went through every variety of compromise and humiliation to access levers which today in Britain control almost nothing. The truth of British politics is that if there is a dangled key, it opens a rusty lock in an unreliable door entering into a room that is empty. If Elliott Johnson had lived a little longer he would most likely have learned that, grown up, and looked back with a shiver of embarrassment at the mistakes of youth.
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