The Fall & Fall of Activate: the Tory Momentum that was dead on arrival
Back in July I joined the ‘Young Conservative and Unionist’ Facebook group hoping to catch a glimpse of the machinations of the enemy and to witness the birth of a ‘Tory Momentum’. I expected to peek behind the curtain a crack team of slick political operators who were being held back by CCHQ (Conservative Campaign HQ) from unleashing their dark magic onto the world.
What I saw was the birth of Activate.
Two things it is important to understand about young Tories: (1) they are deadly serious about Moggmentum and (2) they have absolutely no idea what Momentum is. When asked to imagine the hallowed Tory Momentum the answer came back that it would probably be a Facebook group run by CCHQ or perhaps a way of sharing memes to convince fellow youths of the appeal of conservatism. What they were certain about was that it needed a leader, a set of rules, that it must be connected to the central party and that it must be loyal to them.
There was no understanding of Momentum’s position between the party and its membership. No understanding of Momentum’s role in internal politics or the way its ideological stance had galvanized a wholly new group of activists. All they saw of Momentum was the videos on Facebook and the posts on Twitter and that, though influential, is the most traditional and unexciting part of what Momentum represents.
In their wildest fever dreams these Young Tories were picturing an official Facebook page run by the party or some kind of extension of ‘Moggmentum’ into the political mainstream. Every time this was discussed a helpful lady from CCHQ would post asking people to email the party so that these efforts could be co-ordinated centrally.
And this is how you get to Activate. For a group that claims to be independent of the party they certainly do share a lot of graphical and rhetorical similarities. Even though I’m guessing a .uk.net URL did come pretty cheaply I don’t think the website design did and it would be no surprise to find out that CCHQ had backed the project with a decent financial ‘donation’ to the group.
If the Tories are on the back foot when it comes to understanding, let alone emulating Momentum, then I think it is important that we on the left try and understand Activate from the off. Helpfully their very professional looking website has a detailed statement of aims, a donation infrastructure and a code of ethics. Before they’ve even got around to putting their second meme on Twitter they have elected a board, ratified a constitution and decided on their ideological position.
So this is what they do. There are some elements that are shared with Momentum, the candidate and activist training would be one if they can ever get it off the ground and so is the co-ordination of a national campaign in marginals. Of course the problem is that Momentum slotted into a pre-existing culture of left-wing protest and activism and managed to harness that for the Labour Party. Activate is just spreading more thinly the resources and enthusiasm which the Conservative Party has never exactly been abundant in. They can probably whip up a £5,000 donation from someone who owns a haulage firm but I doubt they’ve got many people who can train canvassers or articulate why young people should vote for them.
There’s no doubt that Activate looks like a win-win if you’re sat in the campaigns office. No longer will the embarrassing logistical task of bussing in young activists for ‘rallies’ fall on you. Now Activate will be a hub for all those young people who want to stand around Theresa May in a two-thirds empty milking shed a hundred miles away from their home constituency. It also provides the party with a happy distance from the memory of Mark Clarke whose work in youth campaigning ultimately led to the suicide of one young activist and much more scandal besides. In this sense it is at the very least a happy accident that Activate can launder the reputation of CCHQ in their relation to young activists and do away with at least some of the stench left behind by the Elliott Clarke scandal.
What is missing in their remit is any sense of ideology or any way in which Activate might interact with the wider party. I would suggest the main reason for this is that Activate is an extension of CCHQ rather than a genuinely independent movement. Momentum was able to find people to the left of the mainstream Labour membership who were inspired by the ideological message of Corbyn. These were people who did not campaign in 2010 but who came out in seats like Croydon Central and Portsmouth South to really swing votes with their enthusiasm. Who is Activate going to appeal to who isn’t already involved in Conservative politics? It doesn’t offer anything new or exciting for young people, it doesn’t offer anything that the CCHQ press office haven’t already tried to disseminate over the last few years. Even a Lib Dem Momentum could capitalise on anti-Brexit feeling, what does Activate possibly have to offer?
At heart I think this is why Activate will fail. Or at least why it will just blend into the landscape of Conservative noise. It offers nothing to young people. Young people aren’t stupid, it wasn’t seeing Ed Miliband memes that won them over to Labour it was having conversations about free higher education and a different outlook for this country. All Activate have to offer is the same, deeply unpopular Conservative ideology but packaged in a decade-old meme featuring Admiral Ackbar. I hope they last at least long enough to post some more high quality meme content but I fear they may not.