Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf

The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

August 29, 2017
5 min read

Word up kids! Have you been looking for a hella wicked youth movement that’s totally centre-right? Well dudes, Activate, the Tories’ effort to copy Momentum by producing memes (or, as they have it, #memes) has just launched. Cowabunga.

Yes, the Tories – having received such a pasting on social media at the general election at the hands of Momentum and its shoestring-budget viral videos – are trying to beat the Labour-supporting movement at its own game. The plan, much-discussed since the election, is to harness the power of young people and digital campaigning to the Conservative cause, and try to fill the gap left by the demise of the Tories’ official youth wing Conservative Future in 2015.

So who are Activate?

Activate launched with a list of personnel on its website, but the page disappeared earlier today. There are rumours that they took it down when it was pointed out that their committee has more people called ‘Lewis’ than women. Luckily we kept a copy for them – remember, internet friends, always backup your data!

Let’s start with Activate’s ‘chairman’, Gary Markwell. As his bio said before it vanished, he is both a Tory county councillor in West Sussex, and has worked for the party as a campaign manager for a decade. In other words, he is neither young, nor grassroots. But he did tell the Daily Star (for some reason) that he gave his daughter the middle name ‘Thatcher’.

Fizarn Adris, membership director, has sadly locked his Twitter account but seems to be a prolific commenter on news sites, with Google turning up such opinions as ‘we welcome President Trumps commitment to NATO! Other countries should pay their fair share and stop depending on others!’ and, on an article about teenage girls being barred from a flight for wearing leggings, ‘Should have wore something according to the dress code and not dressed up like some tranny’s’.

Three of Activate’s small committee, campaign director Luke Ibbotson, policy director Marcus Boyle and East England rep Gergely Horvath, are currently studying at Cambridge University, leaving them with at least one campus where they have some support, but unfortunately one member short of a University Challenge team.

Activate vs Momentum

Momentum works because it is a grassroots movement. It was founded not by a few people in some bunker who decided it was a good idea one day, but – I hope they won’t mind me saying – messily and spontaneously, and with responses from Labour’s hierarchy ranging from skepticism to anger.

When Jeremy Corbyn unexpectedly won the Labour leadership in 2015, all sorts of grassroots groups formed as part of the campaign – not driven from the top, but set up by local supporters off their own bat, or people who wanted to volunteer their help with a specific skill. Many of these informal ‘X For Corbyn’ networks wanted to continue after Corbyn’s victory, and Momentum was the umbrella that ended up encompassing most of them (though not quite all). The organisation built its independent profile, structures and campaigning work up from that strong initial base.

What comparable moment has there been in Tory politics? What wave of enthusiasm is Activate trying to ride? There is none.

There’s nothing inherently left wing about social media – Trump supporters and other far-right activists have been able to find a following online, for example. But Activate’s output so far is just embarrassingly clueless about everything from memes (the Guardian – not known for its knowledge of online culture – called them out for using ‘a meme that was last popular in the early 2000s’) to some more subtle aspects of online campaigning.

The awkward .uk.net web addresses, for example, is usually sold to people with more money than sense, and in changing their Twitter handle from the double-underscored @activate_uk_net to @ActivateBritain, they left the old one open for a parodist to snap up. It’s been noticeable since its launch that almost all the responses to Activate on Twitter are mockery from the left.

Activate is a basically defensive group at its birth, born from despair that the Tories are outgunned online and so need to figure out how to ‘do the internet’, but without enough support from actual young people to make a decent attempt, ending up more reminiscent of corporate PR drones’ attempts to come up with hashtags.

So while it emerges more fully-formed than Momentum in some ways – as well as its committee, it already has a website featuring a relatively elaborate constitution, code of ethics, and various other formal organisational bits such as paid membership – but without a real base of support. It has no grassroots – only astroturf.

Or, to put it in Activate’s terms: it’s a trap!