The Conservative Party has a problem engaging with young people. Although hard evidence is debatable, it is the Labour Party which is typically associated with youth in modern politics. Its grassroots movement Momentum, set up in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 Labour leadership victory, is known for its young membership and has plans to set up its own official youth wing. By contrast the Conservative Party has a much older membership, a fact which is causing some anxiety.
This wasn’t always the case. In the interwar years it was the Conservative Party which led the way in partisan youth. Its youth wing, the Junior Imperial League, boasted 250,000 members while Labour lagged behind. Labour’s official recommendation to form a youth wing came in 1924 – but it was closed down 12 years later due to Communist infiltration.
There were patchy attempts to reform the movement later, but it wasn’t until the Young Socialists in the 1960s that Labour had a firmly established youth wing. Now that the Conservatives hope to launch a new official youth movement, they would benefit from looking to their past to see what lessons can be learned from the Junior Imperial League.
1: Set a clear objective
The Junior Imperial League was founded with a clear objective. Following the Conservatives’ 1906 electoral defeat, the league sought to: “create a practical interest in political work and organisation among the younger members of the Conservative and Unionist Party”. When it reformed after World War I it set out ten “principles” which clearly defined its motivations. Most of these related to the preservation of the British Empire, but one remains relevant today: “To interest and educate young men and women … in the political questions of the day and to assist them to take a larger share of public life.”
Having a clear set of principles gives any youth movement a goal to work towards and something for its members to focus on. In the case of the Junior Imperial League, that goal was primarily a practical interest in politics and the provision of political education.
2: Provide training
Junior Imperial League branches hosted mock trials (acting out imagined court cases), debates, study circles, speaking contests and lectures. The party even owned training colleges for speakers and propagandists. This was all part of a coherent effort to educate young people who would inevitably grow up to be voters following the 1918 and 1928 franchise acts.
As modern political discourse becomes much more vitriolic, emotional, and less focused on facts and evidence, political education remains as important as ever and yet is often neglected.
3: Have fun – but not too much fun
The Junior Imperial League acknowledged the need to engage with popular leisure activities if it was to attract and retain members. This required a delicate balance in order to ensure it didn’t become a glorified social club, but also that it didn’t alienate those with only a casual interest in politics. Branches organised dances, fancy-dress evenings, film screenings, sports and cycling clubs, hikes and rambles, and many other things. My own experience of modern political youth wings tells me that this area is where they most often fall down – they have very little to offer those for whom politics is not a way of life.
The importance of keeping the movement somewhat light-hearted is underscored by the accusations of bullying within the youth group Conservative Future which led to the suicide of a young activist. If young people only experience politics as high stress and highly serious it will inevitably lead to unpleasant behaviour. That will, in turn, drive away potential members.
4: Be original
The Junior Imperial League’s executive committee always looked for ways to improve the organisation and to stay ahead of the other parties. It observed and adapted to its opponents’ tactics, frequently taking the initiative rather than mimicking what had come before. The modern Conservative Party must do the same.
The Conservative grassroots movement Activate UK ran into problems from the outset because it tried to emulate Labour’s Momentum. The group launched by posting an outdated Star Wars meme on Twitter which was roundly mocked. This showed only a cursory understanding of what made Labour’s social media campaign successful. It also highlights the need for originality, rather than copying what came first and expecting it to be as successful.
5: Be sincere
While the Junior Imperial League’s political education aimed to teach people why they should vote Conservative, rather than teaching them to make up their own minds, there is little doubt that then-Conservative leader, Stanley Baldwin, was sincere when he expressed a desire to “make democracy safe for the world” by educating young people. Any modern Conservative youth movement must operate with the right intentions.
The Junior Imperial League gave its members opportunities to serve the movement on a local and national level. Its executive committee, made up of rank-and-file members and senior Conservative officials, gave members the opportunity to have their voices heard: for example members’ concerns over the Junior Imperial League’s name were addressed when the movement reformed as the Young Conservatives after World War II.
The Conservatives today must not let past accusations of bullying steer them into creating a tightly managed and focus group-tested movement designed to turn young people into mindless activists. They must be willing to engage with the young people they seek to recruit and offer them some amount of control over their own movement.
Why it matters
Today’s political climate is very different to that of the interwar years but political engagement continues to be a challenge. While Labour’s membership surges and its popularity grows among the young, the Conservatives’ membership is a cause of some embarrassment to the party. If it is to make up for ground lost in the 2017 general election, the party needs to learn to engage with young people.