A “bloody difficult woman” – What do the Tory grassroots want from Prime Minister Theresa May?

Paul Webb, University of Sussex; Monica Poletti, Queen Mary University of London, and Tim Bale, Queen Mary University of London

Theresa May has secured her place as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservatives without having to win the direct approval of her party’s membership. The original plan was for her to run against Andrea Leadsom in an election, but the latter pulled out before a vote could take place.

But that doesn’t mean the views of these Tory foot soldiers are irrelevant. Their support is important to the stability and direction of the government that May will lead. They help establish the general mood of the party on issues and set parameters within which the front bench can – or would be wise to – operate.

So while May will be delighted to have easily won the confidence of the majority of her parliamentary colleagues, she will also be aware of the need to keep in touch with the party’s grassroots supporters. She will be particularly aware of this as a former party chairman. But who are the grassroots, what do they believe in, and what qualities do they want from their leaders?

Thanks to the Party Members Project, we are able to shed some light on the matter. In June 2015, we surveyed a sample of 1,193 members of the Tory grassroots, asking a wide variety of questions about their demographic background and their political attitudes.

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What Tory activists think about Cameron ’s deal … and staying in the EU

By Tim Bale, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti

Among the majority of membership which is over (in some cases a long way over) 35, the split between those who want to leave and those who want to stay resembles the split overall. That is, six out of ten want to leave, three out of ten want to stay and one in ten have yet to decide.

Among the precious minority of Conservative party members aged 18-34, however, things are much closer. True, some 52 per cent want out, but that leaves 41 per cent who want in. That should give any Tory with a serious eye to the future food, or even pause, for thought.

It seems like a lifetime ago, even though it was only a fortnight. Hardly was the printer-inkdry on David Cameron’s late deal in Brussels before the Brexit debate had moved on to the more fundamental questions involved in Britain’s decision to leave or to remain in the EU.

Anyone who’s ever gone to pre-natal classes may be familiar with the feeling. You spend weeks and months obsessing over the birth, only to find that it’s all over in a matter of hours–and now you’re into the really serious stuff.

None of this means, however, that we should forget about the deal altogether, not least because, before it was done anyway, many Conservatives were claiming that what Cameron came back with would help them make their minds up.

Indeed, when, with the help of YouGov, we surveyed grassroots Tories in April 2015, two-thirds of them told us that their vote would depend on the terms of the PM’s renegotiation.

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Ideology is in the eye of the beholder: How British party supporters see themselves, their parties, and their rivals

By Tim Bale, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti

Although the number of voters prepared to declare an affinity to a political party has shrunk over the last half century, they still represent a substantial slice of the electorate. Here, Tim Bale, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti show that the gap between where strong supporters of Britain’s top six political parties place themselves ideologically and where they place the parties with which they feel such an affinity is not that big. However, those with strong allegiances to a party often see other parties as being much more extreme than do the supporters of those parties.

If British Election Study figures are anything to go by, those feeling close to the country’s six biggest parties – the Conservatives, Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems, UKIP and the Greens – make up around 15 per cent of the 45, 325,078 people registered to vote in May 2015.  That’s getting on for seven million people.

Just after the general election, and as part of our ESRC-funded project on party membership in the twentieth-first century, in conjunction with YouGov we conducted surveys not only of members of these parties but also of their most enthusiastic supporters who, for whatever reason, weren’t actually members.  The results were fascinating.

We gave the six parties’ biggest fans a scale running from zero (very left-wing) to ten (very right-wing) and asked them to place themselves somewhere along it.  We also asked them to place the party they support on the same scale. Then we asked them some more detailed, ideologically-charged questions, the answers to which allowed us to put together what could be said to be a more objective measure of where they are located on that same scale. We did this by asking them whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statements: “government should redistribute income from the better-off to those who are less well off; big business benefits owners at the expense of workers; ordinary people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth; there is one law for the rich and one for the poor; and, management will always try to get the better of employees if it gets the chance.”

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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.

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