For a few days earlier this month one of the biggest political stories in Britain was the emergence of a new conservative youth group, Activate. For an organisation founded on £50, and which has only ever partially launched, this was quite the achievement. But it was also a mixed blessing. The group has grown quickly in terms of members and funding, yet has also become embroiled in controversy and seen many of its leaders subject to abuse and intimidation. I discussed why Activate was founded, what’s been going on and the group’s future plans with Sam Ancliff, the group’s Membership and Campaigns Director who also doubles up as East Midland’s organiser.
We start, somewhat unsurprisingly, with the group’s foundation. Ancliff explains that Activate ‘evolved from a lot of people who were all looking for the same thing’. One 17 year old youth played a particularly decisive role in managing to ‘get everyone together and pull everyone together from all the different chats’. The young activist has since ‘decided to step away and become more private’ in response to ‘the level of abuse he received’. This abuse included death threats being delivered to his home address, which the activist reported to the police on the advice of his college. A number of young Conservatives assumed positions on Activate’s board and the group selected Gary Markwell, a more experienced activist, as their National Chairman (Markwell also provided the group with £50 to set up a website).
Activate launched their website and social media presence hoping to ‘slowly build up our following’ and initially ‘not really expecting to get any traction’. However ‘within minutes of us having a live [Twitter] account with nothing on it the abuse started rolling in, direct messages started flooding through’. Ancliff admitted that he was surprised by the scale and nature of the attacks as ‘some of the abuse was very tailored and focused, one of our members was gay and quite open about that and he received abuse because of that, absolutely disgusting homophobic messages coming through’.
Statement currently posted on the Activate website.
Initially Activate had a list of its national and regional organisers on its website, but ‘within the first couple of hours of doing it we had to take it down because pretty much everyone on their including myself was receiving varying levels of abuse’ via email and social media. In response to the harassment a number of Activate’s organisers quit the group, with Ancliff adding that this episode is likely to be featured in an upcoming Radio 4 documentary on cyber-bullying (which he is now involved with). A little while later a hostile party took control of Activate’s Twitter account, and began posting messages calling for Theresa May to resign and be replaced as Prime Minister by Jacob Rees-Mogg. Ancliff believes a hacker, whose identity he strongly suspects, was responsible commenting that ‘that was the hacker, the hacker has never been an active member of Activate’.
It’s become quite common to see Activate described as the ‘Tory Momentum’, though I don’t think the parallel is exact. Unlike Momentum which supports the left, or Corbynite, wing of the Labour Party Ancliff is clear that Activate seeks members from all schools of mainstream conservatism. As a result Activate won’t endorse a candidate in any internal Conservative Party leadership contest. Instead the group sees itself as a predominantly campaigning group, with a strong youth focus. Ancliff explains that ‘our target is without a doubt the youth demographic, it’s the under 30s that we’re really looking at trying to engage but we’re not going to exclude people of other ages who want to support us’. The group’s plan is that ‘the online presence will form the foundation of what we’re doing’. However Ancliff was also keen to emphasise that they are an all-round campaign group so will also go ‘knocking on doors and meeting voters and helping support local candidates’.
Activate are planning to hold a national launch on 14 October, somewhere in the South West of England (details to be confirmed). The launch will include both the traditional Q&A with journalists and, to demonstrate the group’s intentions, ‘an afternoon of door knocking in a safe Labour seat’. After several Activate organisers left the group in response to the level of abuse they received the group had postponed its formal launch until early 2018, but have since decided they have the resources to go ahead with an earlier launch. The extensive media coverage has helped the group attract ‘quite a few paid up members…in the hundreds’ and they have raised funding ‘in the early thousands’, all of it from membership fees or small individual donations.
Theresa May campaigns during the 2017 General Election
Before concluding the interview I ask about the biggest controversy involving Activate, the allegation that it was in some way linked to a WhatsApp group in which a handful of moronic young conservatives joked about ‘gassing chavs’. Several publications, including the Daily Mail here, attributed these actions directly to Activate members. Ancliff considers this coverage to be deeply unfair. He is clear that the WhatsApp group in question was ‘never Activate…Activate has never even seen WhatsApp’, nor did it play any significant role in Activate’s foundation. Instead it was a large unregulated group of young Tories, each of whom could add anyone to the group, which a couple of key Activate figures happened to be members of. Ancliff claims that it was ‘ridiculous that they tried to tie it back to Activate’ adding ‘there was enough of a connection that it wouldn’t become libel and that’s about as far as it goes really’.
So does Activate have a future as part of the Conservative family? It’s too early to say with any degree of certainty. But with the average age of Conservative Party members reaching 72, a barely sustainable level for a party which aspires to represent the nation, surely anything which could boost youth involvement is to be welcomed?