They are the most powerful people you have never heard of. We don’t know their names. We don’t know where in the country they are based, or how many of them there are. But they chose our last prime minister, and this week the ballots will land on their doormats and they will begin choosing our next one.
Most of the time we barely think of them at all, but once every few years everyone in the country starts asking the same questions: who are the Conservative Party members, and what do they want? It is very difficult to find out. Let’s try.
This is not an easy ask. Until very recently, not even the Conservative Party knew who its members were. The Tory rank and file have chosen their leader since 2001, but it was only under Theresa May that the party centralised its membership list, to great uproar from the grassroots who sensed a power grab. Before, membership lists were held by each local association. Associations were expected to pay a fee to Conservative Campaign Headquarters for each member, leading some to keep a number of their members off the books to avoid paying up. As a result, the party did not even know how many members it had, let alone who they were. “Back then, if someone phoned up and said ‘I’m a party member and I haven’t received my ballot paper’ you basically had to take them at their word,” one former official told me ruefully. “You could phone their association and ask if they had heard of them, but that was pretty much it.”
Even now, with the system centralised and professionalised, the Conservative Party holds less information on its members than the average gas company holds on its customers. The party does not collect extensive demographic information. That which it does hold – age and gender for example – is a jealously guarded secret. This makes it hard to take a sample of the membership for a poll.
“On average, this makes polling Tory members less accurate,” Opinium’s Chris Curtis says. After years of polling members, Curtis is happy to make some heavily caveated assessments of their demographic. These are largely unsurprising: compared to the general population, Tory members tend to be slightly older, slightly wealthier and are more likely to be male.
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The members are not, however, the red-trousered retired colonels of the stereotype. “That may have been the case a decade ago,” one official tells me, “but it isn’t now.” I spoke to many MPs about their local members, and the consensus was that they are much more likely to be the local solicitor or accountant. “They tend to be middle class, middle income and involved in the community in other ways like being a school governor or working with a local charity,” was one MP’s assessment. The extent to which this judgement was shared by MPs from different parts of the country was noticeable. “What struck me most,” said an MP who had served as a local official in one of the richest parts of the country before winning a seat in one of the most deprived, “was that the members were exactly the same in both.”
It is no surprise that MPs say their members are economically to the right of the average member of the population. But on social issues the picture is more interesting. None of the MPs I spoke to judged their members to be in the mood for a culture war. “Mostly, these just are people who care about their communities,” one told me. “They have a vague sense that something about our traditions is under attack, but they are not sure what.”
The Tory members rarely, if ever, get together as a whole. They tend to be more involved in their local communities than with a national project. This means they are not particularly prone to creating voting blocs. We can, however, identify a couple. There are about 10,000 members in Scotland, and they seem to form more of a community. Politicised by the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, they are used to travelling to campaign. “There is much more of a group feel in Scotland,” one official told me. “Particularly when Ruth Davidson was around.” Another group which seems to move as a pack, although it is harder to define, is the party’s younger members. The assessment of party insiders was that these members tend to be more libertarian than the average, and more excited about policy as a whole. “They are big-P Political in a way the older members are not,” was the assessment one gave me.
Conservative Party members are conducting a quiet, polite revolution. Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor, was the choice of MPs for their next leader, and in particular the choice of MPs from the party’s establishment. All the polls indicate that, for now at least, Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, is the members’ choice. The Tory grassroots often feel disenfranchised. It is common to speak to members who complain that the government is letting them down, or that the party just wants to take their money and borrow their time for leafleting without listening to them in return.
But now they are going to have their voices heard, whether the party establishment wants them to or not. They are, to put it simply, taking back control.