Of all the lessons the Conservative Party has to learn as it responds to the findings of Clifford Chance’s inquiry into the alleged bullying of Elliott Johnson, one of the most important is that it cannot neglect its membership – especially the youth wing.
Had the party invested properly in Conservative Future (as the Young Conservatives are now known), the sort of endemic misconduct alleged in the inquiry report could not have taken place.
Members, especially young members, provide the boots on the ground that knock on doors and deliver leaflets at election time. So when Mark Clarke, the man at the centre of the bullying allegations, offered the Party what looked like a simple solution they jumped at it.
Clarke - who was expelled from the Conservative party last year over the bullying allegations - proposed a simple and effective idea: Road Trip. The party laid on some coaches, a hotel, and a meal, and bussed a flying column of young activists into marginal seats for blitzkrieg-style campaign days.
Clarke was appointed to head up Road Trip, and The Clifford Chance report alleges that he used his new title to “convey the appearance of authority”. At CCHQ the Young Conservatives had been overseen by two full-time staff in the 1980s, but Clarke was in total control of this new venture.
In particular, impressionable and ambitious young people like Elliott were given the false impression that their future careers in the party could be made or broken by their Road Trip performance.
As someone who works in the House of Commons and has been part of Conservative Future, I can say with certainty that this was and is total nonsense. Certainly campaigning experience is a great help to somebody trying to get selected to contest a seat and then elected to Parliament, but the idea that the Conservatives, or any party, would write someone off for missing a leafletting quota is absurd.
But most of the young activists involved, at least in my experience as part of Conservative Future, had only superficial access to authority figures from the party proper.
We know where this ended up: a 21-year-old writing in his last note that he was on the “work scrapheap” and that all his “bridges are burnt”.
Clifford Chance have concluded that senior party figures, such as then-chairmen Lord Feldman and Grant Shapps, did not know what was going on inside Road Trip. But that conclusion indicts the party’s oversight of its youth wing even as it exonerates the individuals in charge.
CCHQ’s initial response, as we noted on ConservativeHome, appears to have been to introduce compliance culture: lots of training, clearer lines of communication, and so on.
Important as that is, though, it’s essential that the party learns the broader lesson: that its young members are a valuable resource with plenty of potential, who need care and deserve to be treated with respect.
For starters Road Trip, for all the allegations of abuse and intimidation which have sprung from it, did demonstrate how effective energetic young activists could be when somebody took the time to organise them properly.
But more than leafletting, the party should be pro-actively seeking out the talent in its youth wing and providing training and development for young activists. Not everybody wants to spend their teens and university years donating their time to the Tories, but there are future stars amongst those that do.
A Conservative Party that invested time and resources into its younger members would not only protect itself against scandals like this, but reap the rewards from increasing its appeal to young people and training up a corps of well-trained and highly motivated activists.
Giving them the respect and care they’re due would also be a worthy tribute to Elliott.