From blunders to “petty McCarthyism” – the fall and rise and Turning Point UK

It’s been just over a year since Turning Point UK appeared on the web to “question,” “challenge” and “fight back” the perceived left-wing dominance of youth culture.

A spin-off of a well-funded American political campaign, it has done a lot better than other conservative youth groups – receiving endorsements from a handful of Conservative MPs and engagement from high-profile writers who’ll take any opportunity to plug their new book or bash the other side.

But across universities, the places in which the group wants desperately to have a presence, Turning Point UK is weak. Their natural allies, conservative and libertarian students – who, contrary to what you might hear, do exist on campuses already – don’t see the point of another student society on campus advancing the same goals. Their natural audience, young British people entering higher education, remain largely unaware of the group and, therefore, hypnotised by their dishonest, wicked socialist educators.

How it works

The organisation encourages young people to join its numerous chapters across UK universities. The online list of these chapters has been blank for weeks, perhaps months. Where they have tried to launch, most have been rejected – being ejected from LSE and repeatedly failing to ratify at York on the grounds of potential reputational damage to the local SU.

Where did it all go wrong? Turning Point UK has struggled from the start. The group caters for an imagined audience, not a real one: it appeals to people who like shouty, confrontational politics and making sweeping statements about large groups of people.

Maybe being jovial would win it some support, but Turning Point UK misunderstands wholly what young people find funny, such as the group’s bewildering “satire” of left-wing politics or what life would be like in a Corbyn-led Britain.

Elsewhere, Turning Point UK has let itself down with careless blundering. One of their 2019 “campus clashes” had to be rescheduled and its tickets refunded when it turned out that neither the university (Nottingham) nor the apparent hosts, the local student Conservative society, knew anything about the event. And its marketing leaves much to be desired, misspelling its influencers’ names in its own promotional graphics or subjecting them to some questionable graphic design.

Over before it started

The ultimate blow to the group’s image came at the very beginning, when, at an event to promote the launch of the UK branch, Candace Owens, the Communications Director of Turning Point USA, made some staggeringly ill-judged comments about Adolf Hitler. From there, it was going to be tough to regain clout, even with helping hands from the USA team and a fundraiser attended by Nigel Farage and Brexit Party MEPs.

Aside from the bungling, Turning Point UK is prone to simply getting things mixed up. Recently it took umbrage with a lecturer discussing a Marxist approach to healthcare provision. How could they be so relaxed about “extremist views” and not bring up “the massive failures and high death tolls in Marxist states”? But here, Turning Point UK can’t compute the distinction between theoretical analyses based on Karl Marx’s philosophy with the complex workings of political regimes.

I learned about this in my first three months at university: I was asked to think about the opening scene of The Lion King from a Marxist perspective and compare it to other historiographical approaches. At no point did I think that my tutor, a PhD student of medieval history, hoped I would leave with a desire to put kulaks in gulags. But for Turning Point UK, simplistic thinking is the order of the day. If a lecturer makes an offhand comment about a right-wing politician, it is a sign that they cannot be trusted.

Look who’s back

Until recently, Turning Point UK was out of the headlines. Most of the group’s original “influencers” have moved on, some as early as a few weeks after the group’s launch. One of its most prominent team members has left to launch another conservative youth group. Few of those still involved publicly associate themselves with it.

It seems safe to most politically-engaged students to treat Turning Point UK as a declining fringe organisation, perhaps about to splinter. But something has changed. Breaking the earlier promises of its founding influencers, Turning Point UK has launched an “Education Watch,” a campaign to monitor the allegedly huge left-wing bias that corrupts the British education system.

It’s a clear rip-off of its American cousin’s “Professor Watchlist,” another campaign that has publicly named and shamed academics who are, in Turning Point USA’s opinion, hostile to conservatives and biased in their teaching. You could dismiss this move as a troubled organisation pinching its forebear’s ideas in a distressed attempt to stay relevant, but an “Education Watch” is no joke.

In the USA, the “Professor Watchlist” has caused strife and unrest for numerous academics. American lecturers who are judged to teach with anti-conservative bias have received threats of sexual violence and death. Turning Point USA always denies that its intention is to stoke fear in campus communities. They just want “students, parents, and alumni” to know about the “radical agenda” advanced by some professors. But by naming lecturers, sharing where they work and accusing them of impropriety, they put their reputations and wellbeing at risk.

Turning Point UK’s “Education Watch” is in its infancy and its examples range from the mild to the comical. Even Spiked Online, whose editor has gladly sat down for a casual moan about “wokeness” with a member of the Turning Point UK team, scoffed at the petty “McCarthyism” of the initiative.

Yet we are in the thick of a culture war that some of our most influential politicians do not want to end. This could all get out of hand, especially with Turning Point UK’s penchant for jumping to conclusions.

When Policy Exchange suggests that universities have lost the confidence of the country, programmes like “Education Watch”, which will inevitably be mishandled, could make a big difference in educators’ and students’ lives. For a while, Turning Point UK was the new Activate, a group let down by its own internal battles and silliness. But this could be different.

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