When media reports emerged of a Cambridge university student burning a £20 note in front of a rough sleeper how many of us were surprised, if we’re completely honest, to learn that he was a member of the universities’ Conservative Association? Certainly amongst those of us recently involved with student Conservative politics, I suspect the number is low. This shouldn’t be the case. Such behaviour is totally anathema to true conservatism, or at least to any conservatism worth having. The Association has rightly expelled the student in question, but this doesn’t resolve my concerns. Uncomfortable though it is to admit it, I think there is an issue in some university Conservative Associations which is having a profoundly negative impact on the Conservative Party brand. In the long run it does us no favours to ignore this.
Some student Conservatives may object to this piece. They may feel I’m taring all student Conservatives with the same brush in which case, if they made it to the end of the piece, I’ve evidently failed to make my point. Alternatively they might think that this is an internal matter, and that it’s best not to air our dirty laundry in public. This is understandable, but no longer sufficient. Issues within student Conservative politics have been going on for too long, and don’t show the necessary signs of being resolved, for this to be a sufficient position.
At this point I should bring in my personal experience as a recent graduate. When I arrived at my university the Conservative Association had been formally disaffiliated from the university following a race row, and was not allowed to recruit at the freshers fair. During my time as a student the Association was involved in a range of controversies covering, but not restricted to, sexism, anti-Semitism and financial malpractice. The last of these led to the Association being disaffiliated from the university for a second time. In summary a minority of Association members provided the student, local and national press with a constant stream of anti-Conservative stories. Locally I suspect they did more to help our main rival, the Liberal Democrats, than a hundred Lib Dem canvassers could have.
What made this particularly infuriating was that, and I’m sure this is the case in university associations across the country, the vast majority of members were great. Switched on, committed to conservative principles and wanting to help the party. But to the press this didn’t matter because, and I’ve heard the same from other parts of the country, of a fringe element. There were two, highly interlinked, groups which caused the trouble. The first was those whose politics were well to the right of contemporary conservatism, but who presumably saw themselves as to posh to join UKIP (or perhaps even the EDL) instead. This faction were responsible for the controversy which did the Association the most damage whilst I was at university, the singing of anti-Semitic songs.
The second group, only marginally less embarrassing than the first, were those who saw the Association as a public school drinking club. I once bumped into a group of Association members, dressed in suits at the least, loudly singing the second verse of the national anthem in the town centre. If you want to make conservatives look normal my advice is to avoid singing the second verse of the national anthem whilst dressed like a character from a Monty Python sketch.
The net effect of these two, largely intertwined, factions is profound for Conservatism. Firstly, they make the Conservative Party look ridiculous, and provide a steady stream of nationally embarrassing stories and generally damage the party. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, they push large numbers of students away from Conservative politics. This is especially the case for moderates and students from poorer backgrounds. Partly because of this I was never much more than a ‘paper’ member of my University Association. If you want ‘normal’ students to join your group, it’s generally best to avoid singing nationalistic songs whilst wearing a bow-tie.
To resolve the issues outlined above there are two things I’d like to see student Conservative Associations do. The first is to discourage membership from those who are clearly on the far-right. This shouldn’t be too strenuous, and I’m aware that I hold some pretty right-wing views myself. But if you like racially charged language, or have a strange admiration for Vladimir Putin, Conservative Associations really aren’t for you. You are of course very welcome to form your own group. You could even wear matching uniforms. The second factor is an emphasis on policy over port, on campaigning over champagne. Of course social events should be encouraged, but if you treat a political association as a drinking club, and a socially exclusive drinking club at that, then something’s gone wrong.
These measures would, I admit, cost student Conservative Associations some members. But I’m confident that in time they would result in a net gain. Even if this isn’t the case they would remove a source of nationally embarrassing stories about the Conservatives, which reflect the worst stereotypes about our party. University Conservative Associations are, at present, not being as helpful to the party as they could be. This should be possible to change.