What Activate can teach us | Jake Scott

The media storm that has broken over the last 72 hours surrounding ‘Activate’ has been hectic, to say the least. Conflicting newspaper and online articles have misunderstood the group’s intentions, origins and organisation, as well as lambasted the individuals involved who – for the most part – are little older than seventeen, are (or were) bright eyed young politicos, and genuinely wanted to reinvigorate the Tory youth base.

Briefly, ‘Activate’ was intended to be a grassroots organisation established by a group of Birmingham based teenagers that would connect with young people, in an attempt to counter the influence of Momentum. Activate was not established by the Party, or rich ‘toffs’, but enthusiastic young Tories. But why did Activate try and work in this way?

It is worth observing that right-wing activism tends to be imitate its opponents, both in style and substance. Stylistically, consider the National Association for Freedom (NAFF – the Freedom Association since 1979) who would actively disrupt industrial action with equally, or more, violent methods. In a closer instance to youth activism, the 1980’s Federation of Conservative Students – a deeply libertarian, grassroots and ‘punkish’ association of right-wing students – would often imitate the NUS’s style and other, typically left wing groups. Once, famously enough, they produced t-shirts slandering the socialist Nicaragua regime so well that socialist students were seen wearing them, believing they were supporting their own side[1].

Activate is well in this camp. From the outset, it intended to imitate Momentum – in name, appearance, attitude, its use of ‘memes’. Its success, or failure, is irrelevant. What matters is that the intention was there to imitate, not overcome. Historically, when socialist or left-wing movements have arisen, they have taken on more dynamic names, while conservative groups have been more formal. Even the aforementioned FCS was formal in its name, despite adopting the acronym more prominently.

Substantially, there are many different suggestions as to why conservative groups usually adopt the (opposite) rhetoric of its opponents – socialists talk about equality, so conservatives must vindicate elitism. Liberals talk about freedom, so conservatives must defend order, and responsibility. The most convincing one I have found is Michael Freeden’s ‘swivel-mirror definitional concept’ (the name is scarier than the idea). It is simply arguing that conservatives take the core concepts of oppositional ideologies, and convert them into their polar-opposites to defend the status quo.

Activate has not existed long enough to prove if this is the case, but chances are if it follows the tradition of stylistic mimicry, then it will naturally mimic the substance of its opponents too – perhaps our only evidence of this is the use of ‘memes’ in its Twitter launch.

But Activate has lessons for us outside of conservatism; its reception in the media tells us a lot about politics, and the way it is to be done now. The first is simple: obvious mimicry will fail. Momentum is widely derided in the media, and for good reason – it is exclusionary, divisive and patronising – so attempting to mimic it is going to be looked upon suspiciously from the start.

The second: the talk of a conservative youth base has intensified to the point where so many have cropped up in the last few weeks, that when Activate launched itself in such a headline-grabbing manner, it was going to be scrutinised hugely. The media made sweeping accusations that had little grounds – some claiming it was established by ‘toffs’, others that it was headed by CCHQ – in a scramble to capitalise on the internet storm it generated. Even Tom Harwood (famously a conservative NUS presidential candidate) mocked it, as seen above.

As someone who was invited to join the group, my perception of the organisation was that the structure seemed inorganic, and based on little experience. Some conservative groups have taken to organically growing their networks – one that springs to mind is Conservatives for Opportunity, Reform and Enterprise (CORE), a network for liberal, centre-right conservatives, who host networking events and general policy-themed meetings - while Activate was prepared to select regional chairs before any face-to-face meetings had taken place. It struck me as overly ambitious, and based on a priori (mis)understandings of what was needed from a grassroots youth group. Furthermore, while Momentum had a figure to rally behind (Corbyn), Activate does not. No doubt it would try and capitalise on the Rees-Mogg craze sweeping the Tory youth, but without an explicit figurehead it faltered at the first hurdle.

Perhaps the most important lesson is this: youth activism is a dangerous place. If you don’t know exactly what you are doing, and don’t have at least some sense of irony and insincerity, people will dive on you like vultures. Activate looks like it was a month in the making, if that, and the proof is in the pudding. The most shocking evidence recently of their Whatsapp group conversation, where members casually discussed "gassing chavs" and threw slurs around like it was nothing, displays a clear lack of discipline over members. For a party that has taken significant steps in the last decade and a half to 'detoxify' its brand, the Conservatives really do not need a youth group making comments of this nature, to say the absolute least. 

Activate may become successful (I doubt it), or it may fade into the background – either way, it has left a mark on youth conservatism that must be observed.



[1] Tim Evans, ‘The Rise of the Young Libertarian’, page 71

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