Unplugged MP battles with Hypno Dog to win over young

October 4, 2002

Huw Richards asks if the Conservatives can find a way out of the wilderness and pick up voters on campuses.

Two decades in party politics should prepare you for most things. But shadow Cabinet member Charles Hendry MP admitted last week at Greenwich University that "this is the first time I've ever been up against a Hypno Dog".

It was the first of many new experiences the Conservatives hope will accompany their "Politics Unplugged" project across 60 campuses over the next few weeks, although they hope that getting young voters to make their first meaningful connection to party politics will be the most common.

At the most recent election, only about 30-35 per cent of first-time voters turned out, and only about 60 per cent of those eligible were registered. Hendry, shadow spokesman for young people, says the young electorate is alienated from all political parties. He admits, however, that "we've perhaps been even more successful than the others in turning them off".

Politics Unplugged, which Hendry terms "a big block in a much bigger project aimed at reconnecting us to young people", seeks to reverse the trend. Hannah Parker, chair of Conservative Future, the party's organisation for under-30s, believes the party has the support and the commitment at all levels to change its attitude towards young people. In addition to Hendry's appointment, she cites that of Shailesh Vara as vice-chairman responsible for youth.

There is nothing new about party politicians on campus. But most of the time they address groups of committed supporters.

Although straightforward recruitment is an element of the Politics Unplugged project, Hendry wants to reach the majority who see themselves as apolitical. He believes that if they can be persuaded to listen, many will like the Conservative message. "While many young people will tell you that they are non-political in the sense that they don't support a party, I find that when you get beyond that they are at least as interested in issues - whether it be the environment, international issues, education or health - as any other age group. They're aspirational, many of them want to run their own businesses, and they hate bossy interfering attitudes that tell them how they should be living their lives."

Hendry hopes to reach them though informal meetings. At Greenwich, he sat at a table, on the same level as his audience.

The meeting, held by the university political society, persuaded an audience of 15 to 20 to forgo the heavily publicised counter-attraction of "Hugh Lenon and his amazing Hypno Dog". Most were law students - a consequence of campus geography. Active Conservatives such as second-year law student James Turner from Selby, who said there were about a dozen Conservative Future activists at Greenwich, were joined in the audience by the uncommitted but curious such as third-year legal studies student Mark Kelley from Sussex.

Hendry spoke briefly about his motivations for getting into politics - "to change things" - and then asked for questions. This was the day when Parliament was recalled to debate Iraq, but in the 40 minutes or so of subsequent polite discussion, the issue was not raised. But Hendry was asked about topics including Zimbabwe, funding for the National Health Service, poverty - he admitted that the trickle-down from increased prosperity in the 1980s and 1990s was not nearly as great as had been hoped - and proportional representation. "PR gives too much power to minorities and almost eliminates the possibility of real change," he said. "There was something quite magnificent about the way the whole country spoke out as one in 1997 and said 'We want you out', and if you had Conservative by your name, you were out."

Challenged on racism in the Conservative Party, he countered by pointing to the immediate sacking of Ann Winterton from the front bench for telling a racist joke. He was pressed further by the only woman there, Shantel Wetherall, a third-year law student from Peterborough, who suggested that Winterton might have felt that racist humour was acceptable to Conservative audiences. She was also disappointed by Conservative scare tactics over asylum seekers.

Hendry pointed out that Winterton's audience was a golf club, not the Conservative Party - "not that it made it any more excusable". He also added: "Until we are a party in which the ethnic minorities of Leicester and Burnley feel comfortable, we won't have completed our journey, so keep on telling me."

Wetherall said afterwards that she was not a Conservative "nor likely to be". But she welcomed the meeting as "a chance to challenge people". She welcomed Hendry's attempts to change the Conservatives but felt "slightly fobbed off", partly by the informal, friendly style, which meant she felt she could not press her questions too strongly.

Gary Cook, a second-year law student from Peterborough, was also unlikely to vote Conservative, but said: "He did listen, and he made an effort. I enjoyed the event - I'd never met an MP before."

Imran Irshad, a third-year law student from Manchester, said he was Labour-leaning but had gone in with an open mind. "It is a good thing that the Conservative Party is trying to improve its image," he said. He said that he'd be interested in future meetings of Greenwich's Political Society - which Wetherall confirmed would be seeking speakers from all the major parties.

Most agreed that the meeting had raised political awareness, which was one of its aims. But meeting organiser Andrew Kerr, a third-year law student from Neyland, Pembrokeshire, and Conservative supporter, added that he might prefer continued apathy if raised awareness took the form of a surge in support for Labour.

A small beginning for the Conservatives, perhaps. But as the proverb has it, the longest journey starts with a single step.

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