Cameron and Tebbit are both wrong: Tory activists are not as set on leaving the EU as many imagine

By Tim Bale, Monica Poletti, Paul Webb

 

David Cameron has run into trouble for warning Tory backbenchers not to make up their minds on whether to campaign for Leave or Remain “because of what your constituency association might say”. The reaction to his remarks was swift and damning, particularly from those who want out, all of whom assume, to quote venerable Thatcherite veteran Norman Tebbit, that “activist Tories are deeply Eurosceptic”.

It’s an easy assumption to make, but it’s wrong. For one thing the Tory grassroots, like Tory MPs, have by no means made up their minds which way to vote in the referendum. For another, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between those who actually turn up and do things for the party at election time and those who don’t.

As part of our project on UK party membership in the 21st Century (PMP), we surveyed nearly 1200 grassroots members of the Conservative Party just after last year’s general election. As well as asking them how they thought they would vote when it came to the European referendum, we also asked them what they’d done for the party during the election campaign.

The results for all party members, irrespective of activity, are shown in Table 1, which shows that lots of them will decide once Cameron’s package is finalised.

Table 1 How the Tory grassroots would vote in the EU referendum

I would vote for the UK to remain a member of the EU I would vote for the UK to leave the EU My vote would depend on the terms of a negotiation
All members
(N=1169)
19.85% 15.57% 64.59%

So far, so surprising – at least to those convinced that all Conservative Party members are foaming Europhobes. But if you look at Table 2, it’s also obvious that activists – those at the election who got involved in what we call high-intensity campaigning – aren’t really any more likely than completely passive party members to have made up their mind to vote out.

 Table 2 How active and passive members would vote in the EU referendum by May 2015 Electoral Campaign Activity

  I would vote for the UK to remain a member of the EU I would vote for the UK to leave the EU My vote would depend on the terms of a negotiation
All members
19.85% 15.57% 64.59%
No campaign activity
19.62% 15.00% 65.38%
‘Low Intensity’ activity* 21.67% 14.45% 63.88%
‘High intensity’ activity** 19.34% 15.90% 64.75%

*low intensity activity: displaying election poster, attending a party meeting, liking on Facebook, following and retweeting on Twitter, driving somebody to the poll station, other
**high intensity activity: delivering leaflets, canvassing, standing as a candidate, helping run a party committee

If there are differences among Tory party members, then, they aren’t to do with activism. They are more to do with age, with education, and with how right-wing they like to think they are.

Table 3 focuses on age, and shows that younger Tory members are much more likely than average to want to stay in the EU.

Table 3 How Tory members would vote in the EU referendum by age-group

I would vote for the UK to remain a member of the EU I would vote for the UK to leave the EU My vote would depend on the terms of a negotiation
All members 19.85% 15.57% 64.59%
18-34 29.92% 13.93% 56.15%
35-54 19.66% 19.66% 60.68%
55+ 15.82% 14.78% 69.40%

What about education? Again, there seems to be a difference, although not so pronounced: as Table 4 shows, graduates appear a little more likely to want to remain and less likely to want out.

Table 4 How graduate and non-graduate Tory members would vote in the EU referendum

I would vote for the UK to remain a member of the EU I would vote for the UK to leave the EU My vote would depend on the terms of a negotiation
All members 19.85% 15.57% 64.59%
Non-graduate 18.10% 16.81% 65.09%
Graduate 22.43% 13.50% 64.07%

The most striking differences, however, come when we look at how Tory grassroots members would vote according to where they place themselves on a left-right spectrum running from zero (very left wing) to ten (very right wing). It seems clear, at least from the stats in Table 5, that right-wing Conservative Party members are more likely to have made up their minds to leave, come what may, while more centrist members are much more likely to want to remain.

Table 5 How right-wing and not so right-wing Tory members would vote in the EU referendum

I would vote for the UK to remain a member of the EU I would vote for the UK to leave the EU My vote would depend on the terms of a negotiation
All members 19.85% 15.57% 64.59%
Centre-Right (5/7) 29.30% 9.25% 61.45%
Right (8/10) 13.90% 19.43% 66.67%

Note: Left-Right scale runs from Left (0) to Right (10)

It turns out, then, that both Mr Cameron and Mr Tebbit – and indeed the rest of us – shouldn’t simply assume that grassroots Tory activists will necessarily be pushing their MPs towards Brexit. As always in Conservative Party affairs, things are rarely as simple as they first appear.

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