It’s been said that if you’re not a liberal when you’re 25 you don’t have a heart, and if you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35 you don’t have a brain. This quote is often attributed to Winston Churchill, though whether or not he uttered these words is debatable. What is fair to say is when it comes to nailing their colours to the political mast most university students are of a red rather than blue persuasion.
This has long been the case. When I was a student in Preston (many moons ago) you could count the number of openly Tory-supporting students on the fingers of one hand, and little has changed in the intervening decades. As a rough rule of thumb, students tend to lean towards the left and its inherent idealism and activism.
This was borne out following last year’s snap election when YouGov interviewed over 50,000 British adults to find out how the nation voted. It revealed that among full-time students, 64 per cent voted Labour compared with 19 per cent for the Conservatives and just 10 per cent for the Lib Dems, which some people may find surprising given their staunch anti-Brexit stance.
What this showed unequivocally was that an awful lot of young people have been swept up in Corbynmania and the promise of a ‘better’, and certainly radically different, future.
But what about those students with a pragmatic head on their young shoulders? Seb Baker is president of the Sheffield Hallam Students’ Union Conservative Society. The group had been dormant until he and a friend restarted it last summer.
“It did technically exist but no one was part of it so we got it going again.” When he says “we”, he means the 15 members that make up the society. “We’re pretty pleased with that. I know other universities have more but they’ve been going a lot longer.”
Seb, a 20-year-old second year politics student, says they hope to lend a hand in future local elections. In the meantime they meet up regularly to discuss politics and plan events. Perhaps not surprisingly Brexit – “everybody’s talking about that” – looms large, as do international issues like the situation in Zimbabwe and the ubiquitous Donald Trump – “it’s hard not to talk about him.”
Their main objective at the moment is to attract more members, though he’s keen to point out they’re not political nerds. “We’re like any other students – we like to hang out in the pub and have a bit of a laugh as well.”
Given that Sheffield is a working class city to its core with a strong militant and Labour history, there are easier places to be a young Tory. Not that Seb is fazed by this. “It’s fair to say we’re in a minority here but that’s part of the fun of it. It’s important to have a diversity of thought because a lot of the other political societies are on the left.”
However, young Tories often feel like an endangered species and some are reluctant to discuss their political allegiances. “There are several people who’ve told me they’re Conservatives but wouldn’t say that to their friends. There are definitely some people who are unwilling to voice their political opinions because of concern about being ostracised.”
This is a worry given that young people’s views are often indelibly marked by their time at college or university. But while Seb knows he and his friends are never going to paint the campus blue, he feels it’s important to be part of the political discourse there.
“If groups like ours didn’t exist then my generation wouldn’t be thinking about Conservative ideals. By the same token I’d support the Socialist Workers Party setting up in a university that’s right wing because I think it’s important to give people options and in the free marketplace of ideas everyone should get a say.”
Hull is another traditional Labour heartland but, as in Sheffield, young Tories can still be found on campus. Luke Lancaster is studying British politics and legislative studies and is president of the Hull University Conservative Association. “We’ve got a membership that’s just shy of 35. We’ve had a bit of a revival in the past couple of years thanks to the work of some of my predecessors who helped pull it up from the doldrums,” he says.
Luke’s been involved with the association since he arrived in Hull. “Most the students here are pretty cordial with one another. We don’t get the mass anti-government protest movements you see on other campuses, so it’s not a hostile environment for Tories.”
Universities are an important breeding ground for future Tory activists and MPs, but there are fears that not enough young Conservatives are coming through the ranks at a time when the party’s dwindling membership is in the spotlight.
“We’ve got to be concerned about the falling membership numbers because the Labour Party is increasing its membership hugely and we need to try and match them and make sure we’re just as active in campaigning as they are.”
It has raised the question of whether or not the Conservatives have an image problem. “I think that image problem has been there for a while. People often say they don’t vote for the party but like the leaders and we’ve perhaps relied too much on that,” says Luke. “We’ve seen certain MPs doing more on social media recently to engage with younger people and I think the reshuffle has tried to promote certain individuals who resonate with younger people which is important.”
Lewis Melvin, 20, is a first year chemistry student at the University of Leeds. He comes from a working-class family in Middlesbrough – which is far removed from the stereotypical idea of a brash young Tory from a wealthy background, the old Bullingdon cliché. He stood to be a Conservative councillor in his hometown but wasn’t elected. “It’s not something I go around advertising and I imagine if I did then I’d potentially get some stick. I’ve got a few friends who are a lot more vocal about being a Conservative than I am and they do get some stick,” he says.
“I’ve got friends who support Labour and we talk about politics and there’s no problem at all, but I think there’s a minority of people on the left who are extremely vocal and as soon as they see you’re a Tory just brand you as racist, xenophobic and homophobic, which is ridiculous.
“The majority of Tories I know hold quite socially liberal views, they’re more economic conservatives. But just saying you’re a Tory gets you tarred with so much these days.”
It’s perhaps not surprising then that some students prefer to keep their political opinions to themselves. “It’s a lot harder to admit you’re a conservative out of fear of getting shouted down,” he says.
Which makes Conservative societies like these all the more important. “At university you’ve got so many people from different backgrounds it’s inevitable you’re going to get exposed to other views and what you need to do is listen to what they have to say instead of shouting them down.”
Dwindling Tory membership
While the Labour Party’s membership has surged to more than 500,000 under Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservatives have seen their numbers dwindle in recent years.
David Cameron inherited more than 250,000 members when he became leader in 2005.
The party last published figures in 2013, when it had 149,800 members, but has not published an update since then. However, some activists and academics estimate it has fallen to 100,000, or less.
That would make the Conservatives the fourth largest party in the UK, behind Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats.
Former party chairman Grant Shapps said this week the Conservatives should “come clean” about how many members it has.