‘A toxic culture of coercion’: Inside the whirlwind world of student political activists

Elliott Johnson’s dad says justice will come to those who bullied his son


Ray Johnson is sombre, reserved and determined.

His son, Nottingham History graduate Elliott, committed suicide two months ago. He left behind a note saying he was bullied by older members of the Conservative party.

On the 15th September, he was found dead in his signature three piece suit. He had on him a Winston Churchill fob watch bought for him by his parents to celebrate his 18th birthday and his prized Union Jack wallet. Having finished at Nottingham, the prominent Tab writer was hired as political editor of Conservative Way Forward – a pressure group that aimed to further typical Conservative ideals. He was living in Tooting and making a name for himself in the world of political journalism. He was then suddenly made redundant in September, shortly before his death. Along with a note in his room, he left behind a recording of a confrontation with one of his superiors Mark Clarke.

Elliott is the victim of a toxic culture of bullying that Ray says exists in every party, not just the Tories. He manages the odd chuckle out of sarcasm more than anything, when mentioning how he hopes nothing like this will happen to other young activists. “The cynic in me says this will only die down for a little bit.”

You can sense his determination, it’s unwavering. He’s not tired, he’s not sad nor he is he angry, but there is a grit in his voice and he will not give up until justice is served.

Elliott and his dad Ray at a family wedding shortly before he took his own life

Elliott and his dad Ray at a family wedding shortly before he took his own life

A Newsnight investigation into Elliott’s story aired on Wednesday night. The day after, he told The Tab: “When we watched the program, we realised this is just surreal. You never think you’ll watch a program surrounding the death of your own son. We feel bereaved, there’s a lot of grief in the family.

“I’ve found the whole thing it very hard. We’ve got a lot of pictures of him around the house, there’s no break, the last eight weeks feel like one day. When you go to sleep at night and when you wake up in the morning it’s all you’re thinking about. It doesn’t go away. Whatever you look at, whenever you see anything there’s something of Elliott. You just can’t move on. Who knows when we’ll be able to? The justice is the retribution for those involved, but for a family we’ve lost a son and he is irreplaceable.”

In the investigation, Mark Clarke, director of the Conservative campaigning group Road Trip 2015, was accused of physically and verbally harassing Elliott in a pub in Westminster.

The disputes were, among other things, about Mark Clarke’s behaviour which Elliott had formally complained about to Tory headquarters. Clarke responded by using a minor police caution, that Elliott had received for tweeting the results of the 2014 European elections from a polling station he was volunteering at, to potentially ruin his career.

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Elliott was a vocal member of the Nottingham University Conservative Association

In a secret recording made by Elliott during the encounter, Clarke can be heard making threats to destroy Elliott’s career and calling him a “fucking dickhead”. 

The Conservative Party has launched an internal inquiry and while the results have not been made public, Clarke has been expelled by the party for life. Clarke has since said: “I believe that these false allegations and media firestorm are related to the events surrounding Elliott’s sad death. As such, I will be co-operating with the coroner and providing him with the fullest information. This is the proper process.” 

The first Ray heard of Elliott’s bullying was in the note left by his son after his death.

Ray: “Throwing Mark Clarke out of the party serves the interests of CCHQ. I don’t give a damn and he needs to face further consequences and I believe they will come along. Being thrown out of the party is the least of his worries.”

Ray’s threat is not the least bit surprising. In the last 12 months, there have been 25 complaints about Mark Clarke’s behaviour and his actions. They go back as far as 2007, according to Ray – who is conducting his own investigation. A Tory spokesperson said: “We have been unable to find any written complaints of bullying, harassment or any other inappropriate behaviour during this period that were not dealt with.”

Despite Tory investigations, Ray thinks there is a fear that you can’t say anything.

“The climate of fear and terror makes people go quiet. They think they’re on a hitlist. Who knows how many people have been badly affected.”

A member of Conservative Future, the party’s youth wing, said life was all fun and games as a young activist. On Road Trips, you would spend nights at hotels and dine with cabinet ministers. 

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Asking to remain anonymous, he said: “There were a lot of marginal seats are in less well-off areas, the clubs are tacky, but they were good nights out.

“You’d stay in a hotel, and go home with a hangover, it was usually good fun.”

And that’s the way it was for the majority of those that attended. But, should a student show that they were interested, that they wanted to progress their career within the party, they found that it became a lot tougher.

They found themselves blocked by the “London bubble” – a group lead by Mark Clarke, that were notorious for their tactics of coercing and pressuring young activists.

According to the third year: “There was a toxic culture of coercion that ran through the organisation.

“I don’t think the way Mark Clarke treated Elliott were spontaneous eruptions of rage, in reality they were carefully co-ordinated campaigns.

“They used to be on to us they said ‘these are your targets, get campaigning and you have to do this, if you don’t you’ll never progress.’

“Some of it is within the realm of what you’d expect from management, but there were periods of time where it went beyond what I would deem acceptable.

“It was as if the train was rolling and if you weren’t onboard, you were off the side.

“If my targets weren’t hit, I was called to London and shouted at. They really put the pressure on you to achieve higher and higher targets.

“Their attitude was ruthless. It was like ‘we’re doing this and we’re not going to let anyone get in our way.’

“I wouldn’t necessarily call what happened to me bullying, but more like forced arm-bending.

“I say this as a very loyal Tory, that’s worked hard for the party, but Mark Clarke was a small operative in the blackened corner of the organisation. 

Another activist, who volunteered regularly with RoadTrip 2015, described the same issues. She called the idea that it was only Mark Clarke “total bullshit”.

“It was pleasant for those on the fringes, but the more you got into it, the darker it became.

“There was this London bubble, everyone wanted to impress them for the ego trip and what they could do to your career.

“Some of things that happened to me openly were disgusting, but you had to get used to being treated poorly if you wanted to get ahead.

“You just got used to the abuse from people higher up.”

Ray, having seen the effect of this toxic culture on his own son, agrees. He said: “It’s all about climbing the greasy pole.

“Politics is far too important to be left to politicians. Young people need to realise they can’t all be successful and they need to watch out and protect themselves.”