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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