Members only: views of the Conservative Party’s rank-and-file

Stereotypes of Conservative Party members abound. But in a detailed survey of Tory rank-and-file, Tim Bale and Paul Webb found some surprising results: most are open to limited immigration, are wary of NHS cuts and would sanction another coalition with the Lib Dems.

The average age of the Conservative Party’s membership has been a recurring question ever since Paul Whiteley, Pat Seyd and Jeremy Richardson published True Blues, their path-breaking book on the Tory grassroots back in 1994. So we may as well establish from the get-go that, in 2013, the average Conservative Party member is 59 years old, according to a comprehensive survey of 852 members that we conducted with the help of YouGov and the McDougall Trust. In fact, that figure may be misleading in that it probably understates quite how skewed the age profile of the Tory grassroots is towards what we might call the more mature end of the spectrum. Some 61 per cent of rank-and-file Conservative Party members are aged 60 and above, while 22 per cent are aged between 40 and 59, 11 per cent are aged between 25 and 39 and only six per cent are aged between 18 and 24 years old.

The profile of the party is skewed in other ways too. Compared to just less than 60 per cent of the population as a whole, some 82 per cent of Tory members are in the ABC1 social grades, with 75 per cent of them describing themselves as middle class. This is reflected in their newspaper reading. Only three per cent of rank-and-file Conservative members read the Sun, but 17 per cent read the Times, 20 per cent read the Daily Mail and a whopping 37 per cent read the Daily Telegraph. On the other hand, if we compare those figures with the latest National Readership Survey for ABC1 adults as a whole – eight per cent for the Sun, four per cent for the Times, 10 per cent for the Mail and four per cent for the Telegraph – we get some idea of how much more interested in current affairs they are (and how much more likely they are to read a right-wing newspaper) than ‘ordinary people’. Of course, simply by virtue of the fact that they belong to a political party at all makes grassroots Tories very unusual. Nowadays only one per cent of British adults are members of all the parties put together. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they conform – completely, anyway – to the stereotypes many have of them.

Stereotypes

According to that stereotype, for instance, when they’re not hanging out at church (isn’t the Church of England, after all, ‘the Tory Party at prayer’?) hordes of rank-and-file Tories are to be found gracing the golf courses of Great Britain. It turns out, however, that while 15 per cent of members claim to attend a religious service at least once a week – which is higher than (maybe even double) the national average – a quarter (25 per cent) go less than once a month and half (49 per cent) practically never go, except maybe for weddings and funerals. That is about the same for the population as a whole. It also turns out that a mere eight per cent of Conservative Party members belong to a golf club. Indeed, more than twice as many grassroots Tories – 17 per cent of them, in fact – belong to a gym than belong to a golf club. Whether, in contrast to the vast majority of non-party members who also join gyms, they actually ever go there to exercise is another matter entirely.

Perhaps the most pervasive stereotype of Conservative Party members is that they are all rabid right-wingers. In fact, it all depends what you mean by ‘right-wing’. Our findings suggest that it is important to distinguish between what one might call ‘traditional values’ or ‘social conservatism’, and attitudes to the state and the market. Social conservatism is pretty widespread, judg- ing both from the battery of ideological questions we asked members and their notable opposition on the part of members to the government’s socially liberal policies. However, rank-and-file Tory members’ hold views on the vexed issue of immigration that are rather more nuanced than many imagine. True, a quarter of members (26 per cent) would like to see an immediate cessation of immigration from inside or outside the EU. But that figure is dwarfed by the two-thirds (67 per cent) who are happy for the government to allow people to come and live in the UK as long as they have a job or some other means of financial support.

On the economy and public services we need to be especially careful about jumping to conclusions. Between a fifth and a quarter of rank-and-file Tory members believe, for example, that big business benefits owners at the expense of workers; that ordinary people don’t get a fair share of the nation’s wealth; and that there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. Moreover – especially where their own interests or those of their children and grandchildren are directly affected – grassroots Conservatives suddenly see a role for the state: while there is widespread support for spending cuts, less than half of rank-and-file members support the rise in university tuition fees, while more than half of them don’t want to see cuts made to the NHS.

That said, subjectively, rank-and-file members see themselves as well to the right of centre. We asked respondents to locate themselves, as well as a selection of politicians and parties, on a left–right scale running from 0 (very left-wing) to 10 (very right-wing). By locating themselves at 8.4, on average, Tory Party members see themselves as being to the right not just of their leader, David Cameron (who they place at 7.0) but also most Tory MPs (who they place at 7.9) – in fact, they see themselves to the right of every party bar UKIP and the BNP, which members locate just to their right at 9.1 and 9.3 respectively.

We naturally wondered whether there might be some link between a member’s left–right self-placement and other factors. It turns out that better-educated members are slightly less right-wing on average. Female members and the small minority of Tory members we can classify as C2DE (as opposed to ABC1) are more right-wing. Older members are also more right-wing than younger members. Not surprisingly, then, younger male members are the least right-wing and older female members are the most right-wing members – the ‘blue rinse dragons’ of folk memory, perhaps. Interestingly, while there is no clear linear relationship between activism and where members place themselves on the left–right scale, the most active group of members (namely, those giving more than 40 hours of their time to the party per month) are the most right-wing.

Declining Activism

Activism is definitely at a premium at the Conservative grassroots. When asked how much time they spend on party activity in an average month, including not just campaigning and meetings but also social events, nearly half of all members (44 per cent) said none at all and nearly a third (30 per cent) said only up to five hours. The real hardcore of activists – those who devote 40 or more hours per month (that’s around 10 hours a week) to the party is vanishingly small at only three per cent. Worryingly for the leadership, when we asked if they were more or less active within the party than they were five years ago, 18 per cent of members said they were more active, but 39 per cent said they were less active. We also asked whether people thought the party leadership respected ordinary party members. Overall only seven per cent thought their leaders respected them a lot, although a further 38 per cent thought they were ac- corded a fair amount of respect. Only 11 per cent felt they weren’t respected at all; however, a worrying 42 per cent thought they weren’t respected very much. In other words, the proportion of those who don’t feel that the Conservative Party leadership respects its membership exceeds those who do by 53 to 45 per cent.

Activity seems to have some bearing here, although only at either end of the spectrum. Of those who do no work for the party at all but only pay their dues, only seven per cent think that the leadership has no respect for them at all, whereas of those who do more than 40 hours, 29 per cent think the same, suggesting that it’s the highly active minority – ‘the poor bloody infantry’, if you like – who don’t feel appreciated yet still keep knocking on doors, delivering leaf- lets, baking cakes and running raffles. Interestingly, whether a member does nothing  more than forget to cancel their direct debit or is instead a hardcore activist seems to make no difference to their preferences on the sort of MP that the party should be sending to Westminster. Levels of activism may, however, influence preferred methods for candidate selection. The most popular system of selection among members, in descending order of first preferences, is a members-only postal ballot (43 per cent), a members-only ballot taken at a selection meeting (27 per cent), a ballot taken at a selection meeting that any voter in the constituency could attend and vote at (16 per cent) and a postal primary open to all voters in the constituency (14 per cent). Generally speaking, the least active members are most in favour of primaries (especially open postal primaries), while the more active members are more heavily in favour of membership ballots. The most active particularly favour the membership meeting model, believing perhaps that they are most likely to wield influence that way. Interestingly, though, there doesn’t appear to be much of a relationship between wanting to see more Tory MPs from ‘unconventional’ backgrounds and preferring one or other of the candidate selection systems.

Choosing Leaders

We were also interested in members’ views on electing the party leader – something the Conservatives may need to do sooner rather than later if they can’t hang on to Downing Street at  the next election. We offered members the choice between three options: returning to a system whereby only MPs selected the leader, sticking with the current system where MPs pick two candidates to go forward to a ballot of all members, or allowing members to vote for any MPs who put themselves forward.

It turns out that half of all members (46 per cent) are happy with the current system for electing the leader, although – perhaps surprisingly – a fifth (21 per cent) would like to see the decision return to MPs only. Just over a quarter (28 per cent) would like to see members with a completely free choice rather than having to pick one of two candidates pre-selected for them by MPs. This hardly represents an overwhelming desire for change and suggests that the parliamentary stage of the next Tory leadership contest will remain the most crucial one. This relative satisfaction with the status quo stands in marked contrast to members’ views on their role in policy-making and on the extent to which they feel the bigwigs and bureaucrats interfere with their right to run candidate selection without interference from the leadership and Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ). A sizeable minority (indeed the plurality) of members feel that the leadership/CCHQ has too much influence in candidate selection: some 44 per cent feels that the centre has too much say. When it comes to policy-making, there are clearly many members who would like to see the grassroots exercise more say: more than half of respondents (52 per cent) feel that members should have more influence. The Tory grassroots have always been keen to preserve local autonomy, but it seems that nowadays they would also like a little more democracy, too.

How much things would actually change if rank-and-file members were given a greater say on policy, we can only guess. But judging from what they think of some of the current Tory-led government’s policies, any such change would presumably see the party shift rightwards, although much more on social than economic issues – possibly because, on the latter, a combination of austerity and their own innate Thatcherism has seen the current leadership shift sharply in that direction anyway.

Rank-and-file Support

The Conservatives’ shift from the vague centrism that Cameron purveyed during his early years as leader to their enthusi- asm, now they are in office, for shrinking the state (with the exception of health and education) means that the membership is generally very supportive of government policies – especially those which clearly originate from the Conservatives rather than the Lib Dems. The only exceptions, however, are big ones: gay marriage (59 per cent opposed, 24 per cent in support); cuts to the armed forces (67 per cent op- posed, 17 per cent in support); the refusal to extend restrictions on workers coming from Bulgaria and Romania (63 per cent opposed, 23 per cent in support); and protecting the overseas aid budget (67 per cent opposed, 18 per cent in support).

David Cameron is unlikely ever to be loved by Tories in the way that they loved Margaret Thatcher. There is a general feeling among members that the Prime Minister is simply too much of a metropolitan liberal for his own or his party’s good. However, while some of his rank-and-file, especially those who hold traditional views on social issues, may even flirt with voting for (if not actually joining) UKIP, he is still seen to be doing a good job by the vast majority. So, while Boris Johnson may be their favourite to succeed him (followed some way back by Theresa May and Michael Gove), members will give Cameron every chance to win the next election. And if he doesn’t win it outright, then more than three-quarters of Tory members will, according to our survey, sanction a second coalition with the Lib Dems in order to hold on to Number Ten. In the end, it seems, pragmatism trumps pie-in-the-sky.

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London. His books include The Conservatives Since 1945: The Drivers of Party Change and The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron. Paul Webb is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex. His latest book, written with Sarah Childs, is Gender and the Conservative Party: From Iron Ladies to Kitten Heels.