LIZ JONES: Spend four days at the Conservative conference and you realise – young Tories DO exist, and they love Theresa not BoJo
There can be few worse couplings of words in the dictionary than ‘Tory’ and ‘boy’. It conjures images of rugby shirts and the sound of honking laughter. ‘Tory girl’ isn’t much better: she wears a navy skirt suit, M&S ballet pumps and little make-up on her oleaginous face.
But, my goodness, do four days at Tory conference change my mind. Despite rifts in their party – ‘it’s like our parents are always fighting,’ a 22-year-old tells me – they are fiercely confident in their views.
I hear repeatedly that Theresa May is ‘doing a good job’, even though every young person I meet, bar just two, wants to stay in Europe. They’re also refreshingly unashamed to be Conservative: when I came out as a ‘shy Tory’ two Elections ago, I was treated by friends as though I’d become a vivisectionist.
I hear repeatedly at the Tory conference in Birmingham that Theresa May is ‘doing a good job’, even though every young person I meet, bar just two, wants to stay in Europe
There are so many young people milling around the conference hall I wonder whether the statistic that only 15 per cent of under-25s believe the Conservatives represent them is accurate.
As one female journalist tweets: ‘Every time one young Tory leaves our table, four more appear. It’s like Gremlins 2.’
They all seem unafraid to be at odds with their parents. ‘My father supports the triumvirate of Boris, Gove, Mogg,’ one young man tells me somewhat pompously. ‘But I came of age during Cameron. All my friends did. We’re not lemmings. Just because my father banks with NatWest doesn’t mean I should.’
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I meet two young activists – Lara Spirit, 21, and Will Dry, 20, both from Chichester, who have put studies on hold to be campaigners. Both are fiercely pro-Europe, and tell me they’ll be bringing a hearse and coffin to conference the following day to signify the death of Brexit. ‘I don’t get any flak from friends for being a Tory because I’m pro-European,’ says Lara. ‘I’m not far right.’
NOT all young people are Corbynistas, then? ‘No,’ agrees Will. ‘But we’re not hugely the other way. Rees-Mogg is very irresponsible. Our future is on the line.’ The under-35s I speak to find the zealotry of hard Brexiteers ‘completely weird’. Will agrees. ‘It’s a dodgy ideology over an EU that has worked for decades.’
I can’t find a single young person who wants the PM to step down. Lara thinks May is ‘tough; she’s leading us down the wrong path [over Brexit] but I choose her over Boris’. So what worries them most?
NOT all young people are Corbynistas, then? ‘No,’ agrees Will. ‘But we’re not hugely the other way. Rees-Mogg is very irresponsible. Our future is on the line’
‘Climate change. Big companies not paying tax. Data protection. We need countries to work together’, says Will. If Theresa May continues to force Brexit? ‘I will feel politically homeless.’
On the last night, I head to the well-meaning but infantilisingly monikered Youth Zone to attend an event hosted by Conservative Young Women. My hackles had been raised by the girly wording on the invitation – ‘Just one more sleep before you can join us for prosecco and pizza!’ – but it’s good to be in a room full of so many ambitious females.
The talk becomes heated when a local councillor speaks of bullying by male Lib Dems. Panel member Binita Mehta-Parmar, a 27-year- old councillor in Watford, agrees: ‘The Lib Dems are the worse!
‘They belittle me as a young woman’, she says. ‘They call me my MP’s mouthpiece. It’s hard to deal with, they focus on my appearance, what I’m wearing.’ Afterwards I collar her to ask if she’s tempted to give up politics? ‘No. But I do cry after meetings.’
What prompted her to get into politics? Like so many of the young people I meet it was hoody-hugging David Cameron who persuaded her to convert. ‘My dad is a socialist from Glasgow, so was not best pleased,’ she said.
And Theresa May? ‘I voted Remain, but I think leaving might make more of a level playing field. [Make the UK] open to everyone’.
I talk to Kirsty Finlayson, the 28-year-old deputy chair of Conservative Young Women, and a solicitor from London. She’s only the second person under 30 I’ve found who wants to leave Europe. ‘I voted Brexit, which I know makes me unusual here. I was in the European Parliament, I love Europe, but leaving will be good for jobs.’
I can’t find a single young person who wants the PM to step down. One thinks May is ‘tough; she’s leading us down the wrong path [over Brexit] but I choose her over Boris’
Does she own her own home? ‘Um, no, I’m renting.’ Does that not turn her, as Boris warned, towards Labour? ‘I’m socially liberal but economically conservative. I want low taxation’. What if Corbyn gets in? ‘It will be catastrophic,’ says Binita. ‘He wants tax at 50 per cent. Stop undermining the country.’
So how can the Tories attract more young people (at a fringe event tackling the issue of how to woo the under-45s, the average age is 55)? I quote a statistic to my new friends: ethnic minority voters are increasingly hostile to the Tories, and the proportion of young women who backed Labour increased from 28 per cent in 2010 to 73 per cent last year.
SHOULD conference be more like a music festival? ‘There are too many men in suits,’ agrees Will. ‘We need more women.’ Kirsty thinks the idea of being a young Tory is becoming more fashionable. ‘Young Tories are becoming more vocal; I think the relaunch of Young Conservatives has really helped. I’m an environmentalist, I went vegan for a year – it’s not all suit and tie any more.
‘At the last Election, it was cool to vote Corbyn. Next time? I think we are using social media better and hope that helps younger voters understand what policies distinguish us from Labour.’
After the PM’s closing speech, the young Tories stand hunched, blocking exits or walking into pillars, as they frantically post their verdicts online.
I ask one what she’s writing. ‘Why didn’t she mention women?’
Binita messages me: ‘The speech … was a sober, mature plan.’
And a young woman’s opinion of an older woman’s Dancing Queen? ‘I loved her entrance!’ Binita says. ‘I love her.’
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