Politics, it is true, attracts certain ‘types’, often in stereo. On the left, there is the social crusader whose guilt at his comfortable middle-class upbringing is manifested as doing the right thing by those who didn’t share his good fortune, and the more disadvantaged the better. A disabled black lesbian Muslim convert would be the perfect patronising cause, but being gifted a constituency with a high immigrant population gives him plenty of photo-ops to advertise his conscience. On the right, there is the Professional Englishman fond of reminding the Commons what a good job Her Majesty does; if that doesn’t eventually get him a knighthood, perhaps the economy-boosting contracts with China signed by the various companies he accepts directorships from will; if not, there’s always the corporate perks when the Ashes and Ascot come round, so it’s not a bad life when all’s said and done.
A long time ago, the man on the left would have earned his parliamentary spurs progressing through union ranks, whereas the man from the right would have been selected for Westminster candidacy by the same old Tweed suits from the shires who had selected his father thirty years before. It doesn’t quite work like that now, however. The slow, gradual erosion of the class distinctions that once separated Labour and Tory have muddied the differences between the two, so that the man from the left could just as easily be a public schoolboy who’s never done an honest day’s work in his life as the man from the right could be the son of a bus-driver who arrived on British shores from the Caribbean in the 1950s.
The post of Special Adviser is now the first target on the hit-list, one the aspiring politico has discerned is the best way to earn promotion to Parliament. To get to SPAD status, being a party activist is the first step on the ladder, and attitude is crucial; adopting an arrogant swagger can imbue him with the belief he is already a smug, self-satisfied frontbencher, albeit one whose obscure profile within the party gives him carte-blanche to utilise tactics no member of the Cabinet could get away with. His big chance to impress the top brass is usually when a General Election is in the offing, and then he can do at grass-roots level what is literally beneath the Minister.
The Cromwellian prohibitionists who first flex their muscles on university campuses by concluding anyone expressing an opposing opinion to theirs is one notch below a child-killer have been integral to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn; these twitter Rottweiler’s think assembling as a mob hectoring prominent MPs arriving at the Conservative Party Conference will aid Labour’s route back to government, whilst the older activist peers look down on their children benignly as they themselves infect social media with scurrilous rumours about the sexual peccadilloes of deceased Tories one has to be a certain age to remember. Mind you, the other side appear no more enlightening regarding the fresh blood they recruit.
The Young Conservatives may have been a name that resembled that of a kitsch American Anglophile band from the 60s like Paul Revere and the Raiders or The New Vaudeville Band, but the truth didn’t quite match the moniker. It always seemed that those who, up until 1998, were called Young Conservatives resembled old men trapped in young men’s bodies, like an acne army of prototype Jacob Rees-Mogg’s perusing the Financial Times when their non-Tory contemporaries were scanning the NME or sticking together the pages of Whitehouse with organic glue. I’m sure there are still a fair few of those around in ‘Conservative Future’; but these days the Tories favour the kind of intimidating bullies-in-suits who would once have seen their political ambitions stretch no further than volunteering for the PR wing of the BNP. Perhaps growing up during the era of New Labour smear campaigns and Campbell’s reign of terror has convinced them that Malcolm Tucker is not so much a fictional character as a lifestyle coach.
Former Tory Party Chairman Grant Shapps (whose name sounds more like a part in a plumber’s toolbox) resigned on Saturday as International Development Minister, the first high-profile casualty of an internal scandal that has been brewing for the past half-decade. Back on the eve of the 2010 General Election, Shapps gave the green light for a young Tory activist and hopeful parliamentary candidate Mark Clarke to head the so-called Road Trip, whereby young party volunteers were driven around the country to drum-up support for the Tories. Allegations of bullying, blackmail and sexual harassment on the part of Clarke have only publicly circulated in the last fortnight, but they were known enough within Conservative circles five years ago, when they were deemed of a sufficiently serious nature to warrant Clarke being struck off the list of prospective candidates. He has subsequently been banned from the party for life.
Although Shapps claims he has no written evidence of the allegations against Clarke, his predecessor in the post of Chairman, Baroness Warsi, says she wrote to Shapps about Clarke almost a year ago. The man who currently holds the post, Lord Feldman, is also now under pressure to fall on his sword after it was alleged he too did nothing to act upon the allegations. The suicide of Eliot Johnson, a 21-year-old Conservative Party activist, in September was the tragic event that brought what has been referred to as institutionalised bullying within the Tory youth wing into the open. Johnson had complained to Conservative Central Office that Mark Clarke had threatened to destroy his career, yet it would seem no action was forthcoming before Johnson took his own life. And this in spite of five more activists who raised similar concerns with regards to Clarke’s behaviour.
MP Ben Howlett, former Chairman of Conservative Future, claims he suffered mental health issues as a result of his encounters with Clarke and also spoke of the sexual harassment accusations from female Tories in the youth wing when he broke the story on the BBC’s ‘Newsnight’. In the wake of this public revelation, Eliot Johnson’s father has demanded an independent inquiry into the allegations against Mark Clarke (allegations that Clarke understandably refutes), and the accepted culture of bullying amongst young Tories in general.
The impression given is that the Tory Party hierarchy – and its equivalent in Labour – don’t sully their hands much with the young guns selling their brand at the bottom of the party pyramid; if the alleged activities of Mark Clarke are a pointer to widespread bullying practices at that lowly level, it’s no wonder those that make it to SPAD status and then Parliament itself can often turn out to be such unpleasant characters. At a moment when there is a greater awareness than ever of bullying in the workplace, turning a blind eye is no longer acceptable, and it would seem a bit of bud-nipping is in order, quickly. Not that it will do Eliot Johnson any good.