The memory of Benjamin Disraeli is often much distorted. Perhaps in the most fitting tribute to his own political flexibility; his legacy is often twisted and remolded to suit any and all situations.
It may be disingenuous for me to do the same, but I shall seek to do so none the less. In times of National crisis, we often talk of a Churchillian spirit. More than once there have been vocal lamentations that Theresa May does not more closely emulate Margaret Thatcher’s inability to turn. It is in the shadow of Disraeli, more than any other of her predecessors, that May should now seek shelter.
The Great Reform Bill of 1867 was a triumph of political manoeuvring. Disraeli was then the second most powerful man in a fading and increasingly agitated Conservative Party. The issue of the day was extending the franchise; the Liberals pushing hard the case for further extension. For decades without a majority, the Conservatives were once again doomed to fall on the wrong side of public opinion and lead the charge against.
Disraeli, from the Commons and often without the backing of his Party, positioned himself right under the toes of Gladstone and the reformers. Far from oppose their proposed legislation; he instead convinced the Prime Minister, Lord Derby, that they could in fact go further than the Liberals and thus reenergise the Party. In proving that the Conservatives were the Party of the whole country, they could once again command a majority and save themselves from ruin.
Turn to 2017 and the Conservatives appear to have lost their majority, in part, because of the 18-24 vote. Angry at Brexit, the lack of affordable housing and a growing generational divide, they turned to Labour and Corbyn. The now tenacious Marxists within the Labour Party produced a manifesto that offered young people the World for free. In failing to articulate well enough the vigour with which the Conservative Party aimed to close the ‘generation gap’, we lost the argument and failed to capitalise on the discontent swelling in that demographic.
So how do the Conservatives position themselves as the Party of the young and ambitious? Could we now, like Disraeli before, make a bold move to extend the franchise to 16 year olds? It seems unlikely at best, but there are many other ways that the Party can reach out to younger voters.
Firstly, as alluded to earlier, the Conservatives must become the Party of home ownership once again. An ambitious and immediate house building program should already be underway, supporting the construction industry to blast through regulation on where they can build and bring supply up to demand. In the wake of the Grenfell fire this must of course be carefully considered, but we cannot ignore such a central complaint of a generation priced out of home ownership.
The concerns of young people over Brexit must also be hit head on. A poll produced by the think tank Common Vision and commissioned by Brexit Watch showed that 57% of respondents did not believe that leaving the European Union would work out in their best interests. We must not be content to have won the War over the EU and should now turn our attention to winning the peace; 18-24 year olds will be key to this victory. We should explain what it should mean for jobs and, yes, for the economy.
Policy alone, however, will not suffice. It is not Disraeli’s ability to steal the intellectual property of his adversaries that made him unique; it is that he managed to infiltrate the spaces in which people discussed and learned about politics. Unhappy with the state of the press, that largely favoured the Whigs, Liberals and Radicals over the Tories, Disraeli’s mission was to create his own newspaper.
How can we learn similar lessons in the social media age? I think it would be no hyperbole to suggest that it is the left who have the strongest presence on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook – a growing source of information for 18-24 year olds. It is there that we can find an enormous amount of statistics and claims made, often unfounded, but shared relentlessly. There is currently a ‘meme’ doing the rounds comparing the thousands of times that a tweet by Jon Snow was shared, which gave misinformation on the DUP’s demands in negotiations with the government. In contrast, his correction was shared just hundreds of times.
CCHQ desperately and urgently needs a strong social media strategy. Successful politicians are able to shape the debate through the images and videos they share with the public, we cannot any longer ignore this growing medium. We need a collection of activists that are able and willing to participate in the online debate and ensure that it is not socialist arguments that monopolise. We need our voice to be heard. The idea of a smart phone army may seem absurd, but it will prove crucial in the long-term fight for the young vote. This will be the canvassing and voter interaction of the future.
We have much to learn from Disraeli, his quotes are witty and charming; he was ruthlessly ambitious and perpetually flexible in his political outlook. It is the Benjamin Disraeli of 1867 that we now need to remember – the Prime Minister, who looked upon the electoral map of Britain and seeing no Conservative majority there, went out and redrew himself a new one. The key to that beyond 2017 will be the young.