Ask the Expert: Dr Monica Poletti on what Conservative party members think

In our latest ESRC-sponsored Ask The Expert seminar, Dr Monica Poletti of Queen Mary, University of London and the ESRC Party Member Project, presented an in-depth analysis of Conservative party membership in 2017

Following last year’s seminar on the changing nature of Labour party membership by Professor Tim Bale, Dr Poletti explored the demographics and standpoints of the group who might choose the next Prime Minister.

Conservative members[1] vs Conservative voters[2]

  • Gender: Seven in ten party members are male, however Tory voters were equally split by gender in the 2017 election.
  • Socio-economic background: The majority of members and voters are middle-class: 86% of members and 60% of voters are classified as ABC1[3]
  • Age: The average age of Conservative party members is 57, with six in ten aged over 56, and four in ten aged over 65. In comparison, only 23% of Tory voters were aged over 65, and just under a half (49%) were over 56.
  • Education: 42% of party members are graduates, whereas one in five of voters have a university degree. This factor is likely a reflection of Conservatives being older.
  • Region: Over a half of both Tory party members and Tory voters live in the South, with one in ten in London.
  • More rightwing: Conservative party members lean more towards the economic right than Conservative voters, as the former tend to disagree to a greater extent with views such as the perceived existence for separate laws for the rich and the poor, big businesses taking advantage, and working people not getting a fair share.
  • Less socially conservative: Tory party members tend to oppose ideas such as the death penalty being the most appropriate sentence for certain crimes, the call for censorship in order to uphold moral standards, and the need for stiffer sentences for law-breakers, more than Conservative voters do.
  • In touch: when asked to self-assess their individual, as well as the Conservative party’s, alignment, members and voters placed both themselves and the Tory party as right of the economic centre.

Snap Election

  • 23% of Tory party members did not engage in a campaigning activity prior to the election, compared to 12% of the wider population who belongs to any political party.
  • Compared to members to all political parties, Conservatives were less likely to participate in online campaigns prior to election day: 38% said they engaged with the party or party candidates on Facebook and 23% engaged on Twitter. In comparison, 62% of registered members regardless of party ‘liked’ party material and 34% tweeted or retweeted party messages.
  • Conservative party members were less likely to display an election poster (24%) or attend a public meeting (21%).
  • A similar proportion of Tory party members delivered party leaflets or helped canvass voters as did members of other parties (34% and 23%, for each activity).
  • Conservative party members were generally dissatisfied with the performance of the party and the Prime Minister during the election, giving each an average score of 3.4 and 3.6 out of 10, respectively.
  • However, 71% of surveyed members would prefer Theresa May to remain Prime Minister, likely due to a lack of a suitable substitute.
  • When asked to name their most preferred next party leader, one in four Conservative party members responded that they could not choose or did not know. David Davis received the support of 21%, whereas 17% wrote down Boris Johnson’s name. Only 6% said Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Division over Brexit

  • Seven out of every ten members of the Conservative party voted to Leave the European Union last June.
  • The Leave and Remain groups within the Tory party are still split today over various components of Brexit.
  • Whilst more than half of members do not want a second referendum on the Brexit Deal and wish for EU and non-EU citizens to be treated under the same immigration rules, these views are over-represented among Leave voters: over nine in ten support the above statements, whereas over four in ten of Remainers are in opposition.
  • Six in ten of Conservative party Remainers prefer the UK to stay in the single market; a further 62% wish to stay in the customs union. In comparison, only 11% and 13% of Leave Tory members reported the same attitudes, respectively.
  • Conservative party members are split over whether immigration undermines or enriches Britain’s cultural life: Leave voters tend to see immigrants hinder British culture, whereas Remainers believe foreign nationals have a positive impact.
  • However overall, Conservative party members think immigration is good for the economy, regardless of how they voted in the referendum.

Bottom line

One thing policymakers and opinion-formers should take from Dr Poletti’s work: Leadership hopefuls should not alienate Tory Remainers, as their vote could be a game-changer in a potential leadership election. One common mistake in popular debate Dr Poletti would like to correct: Whilst Conservative party members tend to be older, male, and middle-class, a majority do view immigration as a positive contributor to the economy.

[1] In 2017

[2] In the 2017 General Election

[3] ABC1 refers to the top three social and economic groups, whereas C2DE refers to the lower three socio-economic groups.


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