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Conservative Party members are more pragmatic than you think

Who are the Tory grassroots voters who will choose our next prime minister and what do they really believe?

By Anoosh Chakelian

What do you think of when you imagine the Tory party faithful? Pearl and Barbour-clad fundamentalists, cosied up at golf club dinners and spending their pension-fuelled days plotting to bring back hanging and fundraising to replace the nearest mosque with a bowling green?

Even among Conservative MPs and staff the image of their party grassroots as frothing right-wing ideologues has stuck – not helped by the infamous dismissal of local members as “mad, swivel-eyed loons” by a close ally of David Cameron when he was in No 10.

When I chatted to the original “swivel-eyed loon” and other local Conservative association members during the 2019 leadership election, I found a group of pragmatists. Unsure and unenthused about Boris Johnson’s politics and leadership style, they nevertheless told me he was more likely than the other candidates to win a general election, so he had their vote. Similarly, when I visited Theresa May’s Maidenhead constituency before she resigned as leader, local Tory councillors were clear-eyed about her electoral drag on the party.

Unless one of the final two contenders in the current Tory leadership race drops out, around 175,000 members of the Conservative Party will vote for the next leader over the summer. While leadership candidates are currently pitching to fellow MPs, who will whittle the shortlist down to two, eyes are already turning to who Tory members prefer.

Some of the demographic stereotypes about this group of voters are indeed based in reality. They tend to be old, posh, white, male, southern and very Eurosceptic, according to 2020 research from the Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University Party Members Project.

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“This is not a very representative sample of the British electorate,” says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, who has been studying UK party members since 2013.

Tory members skew older than the general population: 39 per cent are 65 and over, and 58 per cent are aged 50 and over. They are overwhelmingly middle or upper class, with 80 per cent in the top ABC1 demographic grade compared with 20 per cent C2DE; 42 per cent live in the non-London south. They tend to be concentrated in safe Conservative seats rather than marginal constituencies; there are not many Tory members in the Red Wall seats, for example.

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The gender breakdown is 63 per cent men and 37 per cent women, while over 95 per cent are white British. In the 2016 EU referendum 76 per cent voted Leave.

Yet there are other, perhaps more surprising, aspects of the 0.4 per cent of the UK electorate who could decide the next prime minister.

“What I’d want to stress is that they’re not quite the kind of neoliberal Thatcherite head-bangers that sometimes comes across in the caricatures,” warns Bale, co-author of Footsoldiers, a seminal 2019 book on UK party membership in the 21st century. “They’re socially much more conservative than [Tory] MPs but on basic economic underlying values they’re considerably more to the centre than [Tory] MPs, even though they’re not quite where voters are.”

These differences were revealed in a report called “Mind the Values Gap” by Bale and others for the UK in a Changing Europe think tank in June 2020.

“I think this is partly because a lot of them are of a certain age and therefore do rely increasingly on the NHS,” Bale suggests. “They do think law and order is important and one correlate of that is they want money spent on law and order. They’re unlikely to be in education, but a lot of them will have grandchildren and perhaps children in education as well.”

While MPs may be attracted to Tory leadership candidates fixated on tax cuts and shrinking the state, these views may not go down so well with party members.

Liz Truss and Penny Mordaunt would both be favoured over Rishi Sunak in a final run-off, according to YouGov polling of Tory members on 6-7 July. An unscientific yet influential poll of the Tory grassroots by the website Conservative Home finds its readers put Sunak at a distant third behind Mordaunt, who comes first, and Kemi Badenoch, second. This does not expose an obvious social or economic ideological preference among members: Mordaunt is a socially liberal Brexiteer, Truss a libertarian who campaigned for Remain, and Badenoch a culture warrior warning against a tax cut arms race.

Party members, despite the stereotype, are not diehard ideologues. “Most party members just pay their subs and watch the TV and read the newspapers,” says Bale. “They don’t follow politics obsessively, as some people assume they would – they’re not this sort of bunch of bug-eyed obsessives!” He has found that only 15 per cent of Tory members could be described as “core activists” (ie very actively campaigning for the party).

Above all, the quality Conservative members prioritise in their party leader is “being in touch with ordinary people”: it is ranked first by a majority of those surveyed in 2017 for the Party Members Project. This was followed by “being able to unite the nation as prime minister” and “strength and authority”.

“It’s incredible, really, how long the conventional wisdom has lasted that somehow party members are more extreme than MPs,” reflects Bale. “It’s a common assumption, but the research just doesn’t bear it out. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t draw too strong a distinction between the people who join political parties and the rest of us.”

[ See also: Rishi Sunak takes the lead, but Penny Mordaunt has the most to celebrate ]

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