Paul Webb, Tim Bale and Monica Poletti

So, now we know who the UK’s next prime minister will be, and that she will not to have to win the direct approval of her party’s membership. However, the views of these Tory footsoldiers are not irrelevant to the stability and direction of the government that Theresa May will lead. They help establish the general ‘mood’ of the party on issues and set parameters within which the front bench can – or would be wise to – operate. So, while Theresa May will be delighted to have easily won the confidence – at least initially – of the majority of her parliamentary colleagues, she will also be aware, especially as a former Party Chairman, of the need to keep in touch with her grassroots. But who are they, what do they believe in, and what qualities do they want from their leaders? 

Thanks to our ESRC funded Party Members Project, we are able to shed some light on the matter. In June 2015 we surveyed a sample of 1193 members of the Tory grassroots, asking a wide variety of questions about their demographic background and their political attitudes. While some of the other parties have been subject to significant surges in membership recruitment since then (most dramatically in the case of Labour, of course), this is unlikely to have been the case for the Conservatives; although the official membership numbers have not been publicly updated for some time, estimates have consistently placed them at approximately 130,000-150,000 for several years now. This suggests that our sample is likely to be as representative of the Conservative membership now as it was a year ago.

NB: ‘All parties’ refers to a sample of the members of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, UKIP, SNP and Greens.


Table 1 reports some of the major social background features of the membership. The Tory grassroots are plainly older, more male, more middle class, but a little less well educated than is true of party members across the UK as a whole. They have also served their party as footsoldiers (or at least as sleeping supporters) for longer than average.

Turning to the political attitudes of the membership, Table 2 reports their responses to standard questions that have routinely been asked by the British Election Study teams since the 1980s in order to tap general left-right orientations. In each and every case of the first five items in the table, far lower percentages of Conservatives agree with these left-wing statements than we find across all party memberships in the UK. The sixth item is not part of the usual battery of left-right values indicators in the BES, but is plainly pertinent to this dimension of belief, focusing as it does on whether or not austerity has gone far enough since the economic crisis erupted in 2008. This time the question is phrased as a right-wing statement – and Tory members are far more likely to agree or agree strongly with it than other parties’ adherents are. Quite clearly, the Conservative grassroots are distinctly right-wing. What is more, they are perfectly aware of it: we asked them to locate themselves on an imaginary left-right scale running from 0 (left) to 10 (right). The overall mean position for members of all parties was 4.44, but the average Tory member placed himself or herself at 7.76.

We also sought to locate party members on the social libertarian-authoritarian dimension, once again drawing on standard indicators routinely used by the BES. The first five items reported in Table 3 comprise these standard measures and clearly show that much higher percentages of Tory members agree or agree strongly with the socially conservative statements set out there; the sixth item is not part of the usual battery but is pertinent in the context of the period since 2010, since it asks whether or not respondents support the legislation passed by the Coalition to introduce same-sex marriage. Significantly fewer Conservative members agree with this major piece of social reform than is true of members of other parties, although there is some evidence of movement on the issue since we surveyed them in a pilot study in 2013. Clearly, then, it is safe to regard the Tory grassroots as social conservatives. While May has sometimes attracted the criticisms of social liberals and lawyers for her inclination to withdraw Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights (a pledge she has recently resiled from), she supported gay marriage legislation and is hard to pin down as consistently liberal or conservative.

Tory members hold ‘robust’ views on immigration. We asked respondents two questions about immigration: is it good or bad for the economy? And does it undermine or enrich cultural life? For each of these they had to place themselves on a scale running from 1 (bad for economy/undermines culture) to 7 (good for economy/enriches culture): the Conservative members’ means scores were 4.25 and 3.65 respectively, compared to 4.92 and 4.70 for all parties’ memberships. Plainly, achieving greater control of net inward migration is something that the grassroots will now be hoping for; it is also an objective that singularly eluded May as Home Secretary. In the context of the EU’s commitment to the free movement of people this is hardly surprising, but as Prime Minister she will have the opportunity of striking out in a new direction; the obvious challenge will be to find a way of doing this that does not inflict significant damage on the economy – something that will take considerable political skill.

Table 4 shows us something interesting about the attitudes of the Conservative membership towards Britain’s membership of the EU. It appears that a year before the referendum they were not determined come-what-may to vote Leave, but that their attitudes were largely contingent: nearly two-thirds indicated that their vote would depend on the renegotiated terms of membership that David Cameron managed to achieve; although we do not have direct evidence of this yet, it looks very like his efforts in this regard left them unpersuaded. To characterise the majority of Tory grassroots members as head-banging Brexiteers might be misleading then – something which could have a bearing on how they regard their new leader, who was a notoriously lukewarm Remainer. It is probably not important to most of them that she was not a Leaver – especially in view of her clear post-referendum statement that ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

So we know a little of the general political outlook of Conservative members, but what are the specific qualities they will be looking for in their party leader and prime minister? We offered respondents a list of 10 such qualities, and asked them to say which they would pick as the three most important. Table 5 shows the results. For grassroots Tories, it would seem that ‘strong’ leadership, ability to unite the nation, and being a good communicator weigh most in the balance. However, the latter matters notably less for Conservatives than it seems to for other parties’ members. Surprisingly, perhaps, having strong beliefs and appealing to the average voter do not figure so highly for Tory members. Rather, what stands out about them is their wish for strong and authoritative leaders who can be good in a crisis and unite the nation.

There is, perhaps, something classically Churchillian and One Nation about this skillset. Whether Theresa May has good standing in these terms in the eyes of the party membership is something on which we can only speculate right now. She has the advantage of having survived that well-known political graveyard, the Home Office longer than any politician in living memory, which may commend her to many. In this role she can even claim a notable triumph in her dogged determination to deport Abu Quatada from the UK, in the face of several judicial setbacks. Her rhetoric of late has certainly carried with it the timbre of One Nation politics and has shown a certain pragmatism. A longstanding advocate of equal pay for men and women, she has now promised employee representation on company boards of directors, shareholder votes on executive pay, an attack on inequality and, as her three immediate priorities, to govern ‘for everyone, not just the privileged few’; to unite the party and the country; and to negotiate EU withdrawal successfully.  

True, Theresa May’s ‘Nasty Party’ conference speech of 2002 angered some Tory activists. The point she was seeking to convey to the more ideologically zealous among them was that the Conservative Party could only hope to govern again if it remained in touch with mainstream society and was not seen to pursue the exclusive, narrow-minded agenda of a select few. In this respect, her stated position this week has remained consistent – and it resonates with the membership’s desire for strong leadership that might bring unity to a fractured nation.


Paul Webb is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex. He tweets @PaulDWebb1.  Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London. He tweets @ProfTimBale. Monica Poletti is a postdoctoral research assistant, also at Queen Mary University of London.

Image: Policy Exchange