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Blue Grassroots: Conservative Party Members In The Aftermath Of The Brexit Referendum

07/09/2017 11:16 BST | Updated 07/09/2017 11:34 BST

Eye-catching figures recently published by the Electoral Commission show not only that Labour, with its more than half a million members, generated £14.4million in membership fees in 2016 but that this was ten times more than the Tories managed. Hardly surprising perhaps when best guesses suggest Jeremy Corbyn's party has almost five times as many members as Theresa May's.

But what more do we know about her dwindling band of foot soldiers - and how do those who belong to the Conservative Party compare to those who voted for it in 2017?

Our ESRC-funded project on UK party membership, has, with the help of YouGov, conducted a new survey of just over a thousand Tory members, fielded just after the June 2017 snap-election, about half of whom had already been kind enough to answer our questions in the aftermath of the 2015 general election, too. And we can measure them against voters by using the 2017 British Election Study.

Demographics: Men, Middle-Class, Grey-haired

For a start, Conservative Party membership is considerably less gender-balanced than Tory party voters, given that not far off three-quarters of the former are men (71%), compared to half of the latter (50%). And, while it's true to say that all parties are thoroughly middle-class, it's even more true of the Tories, since nearly nine out of ten of them (compared to six out of ten of Conservative voters) can be classified as ABC1s (86%).

What about age? The average grassroots Tory is 57 years old but over 65s constitute 44% of the Conservative Party membership compared to less than 30% of most other parties, and just over a fifth of the Tory electorate (23%). Only about one in twenty Tory party members (6%) is aged between 18-25 - exactly the same proportion of that age group which voted Conservative at the last general election. Momentum-like Tory youth organizations such as Activate or Our Conviction are clearly needed, but they may well struggle.

Ideology: right-wing and socially conservative

Tory party members are unashamedly right of centre, self-locating, on average, at 7.6 on a left-right scale running from 0 to 10. Interestingly, this seems in reasonably close accord with where they see their party (7.3). But, perhaps not surprisingly, given that party members often hold more extreme views than mere supporters, the party's voters tend to see themselves as slightly more moderate than members, placing themselves at 6.7 on the same scale.

Judging by their answers to a bunch of standard questions about the economy, it is pretty clear that Tory members are overwhelmingly against government redistribution (only 15% of them agree, compared to 21% of Tory voters). They're also sceptical - much more so than Tory voters - about the idea that working people don't get their fair share of the nation's wealth (just 19% agree compared to 42% of Tory voters) and that there is one law for the rich and one for the poor (18% agree compared to 48% of Tory voters). True, a third of them aren't big fans of big business: 32% thinks they take advantage of ordinary people. But that figure rises to 56% among Conservative voters.

On 'social' or 'moral' questions, however, Tory members and voters are more in tune with each other. If anything, the party's members are marginally less social conservative than its voters: 'only' just over half of them approve of capital punishment (54% vs. 64% of Tory voters) and only just under half think censorship is necessary to uphold moral standards (44% vs. 55% of Tory voters), although well over two-thirds of them would like to see stiffer sentences (71% vs. 78% of Tory voters).

And as for young people not respecting traditional British values, the Conservative Party's membership seem to take a pretty dim view: eight out of ten Tories think that's the case (77% vs. 78% of Tory voters). The same high proportion of Conservative grassroots members think schools should be teaching kids to obey authority (84% vs. 81% of Tory voters).

Hard Brexiters

But what do the Blue grassroots think about Brexit? Given that our research suggests seven out of ten (69%) of ordinary Tory members voted to leave the EU, it is not surprising that there is hardly any support among them for a second referendum (in marked contrast to Labour members!). Only around one in ten (13%) would even consider one and three quarters of them are resolutely against the idea of holding one (86%).

Half of all Tory members are certain that the UK should leave the single market (48%) and another fifth lean that way (21%). The picture is pretty similar for the customs union (47% and 26%). Only one in four think is potentially a good idea for the UK to stay in the single market (26%) or in the customs union (28%).

Finally, in line with the leaked Home Office document on immigration, Tory members are pretty convinced that post-Brexit, EU citizens should be treated the same as non-EU citizens: indeed, only 15% are keen on the idea of seeing a regime that continues to favour Europeans.

That said, although there are fewer Remainers among Tory members (they number around 30%), it should be kept in mind that they could still be a key swing vote in a close leadership race. True, at the moment there is precious little appetite among members for Theresa May to leave. But if a leadership election were to happen before March 2019, any candidate thinking of pitching themselves as the hardest of hard Brexiters might need to be careful not to overdo it. Jacob Rees-Mogg, you have been warned!

Dr. Monica Poletti will present on Conservative Party Members today at the ESRC-funded event Ask the Expert organized by the Social Market Foundation