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Five things you may think you know about the Conservative grassroots but actually probably don’t

The problem with doing any kind of social science is that the data you collect end up confirming what people already assume is the case. This is not bad in itself. There’s nothing inherently wrong in providing empirical evidence for something that, up to that point anyway, was merely unproven common wisdom. But it doesn’t make for great telly – or radio or press or even blogs. No-one, after all, wants to fail the proverbial No Shit Sherlock test.

Our recent survey of 852 rank-and-file members of the Conservative Party, conducted for us by YouGov and funded by the McDougall Trust turns out, predictably enough, to tell us some stuff we probably could have guessed at and other stuff that is slightly more surprising. Sometimes things that fall into the former category are actually pretty important. Sometimes things that fall into the latter are kind of fun, but hardly earth-shattering. Sometimes it’s not until you do the statistical analysis that you can tell the difference.

We’re not going to do that analysis here – something which, no doubt, some readers will be relieved to learn. For those who aren’t, some initial forays have already made their way into the media here, here and here. And some serious number-crunching is going into a suitably pointy-headed paper we’re going to be delivering at the American Political  Science Association’s meeting in Chicago at the end of August.

Instead we thought we’d pick out five more or less random findings that contradict or at least qualify the common wisdom about the Conservative grassroots. So here goes:

1. The Tory rank-and-file are a bunch of middle class old duffers who, when it comes to candidate selection, like to pick a typical Tory boy – public school, Oxbridge, and the rest.

Not quite. Grassroots Conservatives may indeed be ‘of a certain age’ – the average for our respondents was 59. And they are certainly overwhelmingly middle class. However, they are rather more open minded about candidates than many imagine. When we asked members about female MPs, 52% of them said they’d like to see more and only 2% said they’d like to see fewer, with the rest thinking the number was about right (24%) or not caring either way (22%). Even more interestingly, and chiming nicely with the work of Nottingham’s own Philip Cowley, when we asked them about MPs from working class or lower middle class backgrounds, 53% would like to see more and only 3% less, with the figures for those who were satisfied with the current number or not caring either way standing at 24% and 18% respectively.

2. Grassroots Conservatives are rabid right-wingers.

In fact, it all depends what you mean by right-wing. Our findings suggest that it’s important to distinguish between social conservatism and attitudes to the state and the market. The former – typified by current ambivalence or outright hostility to gay marriage – is pretty widespread, although there are some libertarians at the grassroots, including, perhaps, the third of members who don’t believe moral standards need to be upheld by censorship of films and magazines. On the economy and public services, however, we need to be a bit more careful. Between a fifth and a quarter of rank and file Tory members believe, for example, that big business benefits owners at the expense of workers, that ordinary people don’t get a fair share of the nation’s wealth and that there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. Moreover, especially where their own interests or those of their families are directly affected, grassroots Conservatives suddenly see a role for the state: while there is widespread support for spending cuts, less than half of rank and file members support the rise in university tuition fees, while more than half of them don’t want to see cuts made to the NHS.

3. The Tory rank-and-file are irredeemably opposed to immigration in all its forms.

No they aren’t, actually. As you may have seen reported in the media, we discovered that a significant minority of Tory members are tempted by UKIP – a party whose anti-immigration platform is a big part of their appeal. Indeed, while 66% of grassroots Conservatives say they would never vote for their coalition partners, the Lib Dems, in a general election, only 33% of them say the same about Nigel Farage’s outfit. However, as is the case for many of their fellow countrymen and women, rank-and-file Tory members’ views on immigration are actually rather more nuanced than many would imagine. True, a quarter of them (26%) would like to see an immediate cessation of immigration from inside or outside the EU. But that figure is dwarfed by the two-thirds of them (67%) who are happy for the government to allow people to come and live in the UK as long as they have a job or some other means of financial support.

4. The C of E might not be ‘the Tory Party at prayer’ any more but loads of grassroots Conservatives are pillars of their local churches.

Not really. While 15% claim to attend a religious service at least once a week – which is probably higher  than (maybe even double) the national average – a quarter (25%) go less than once a month and half (49%) practically never go, except maybe for weddings and funerals. That’s about the same for the population as a whole.

5. When they’re not hanging out at church, hordes of rank-and-file Tories are to be found gracing the golf courses of Great Britain.

Wrong. Turns out that only a disappointing 8% of Conservative Party members belong to a golf club: 11% of the men and 3% of the women. Whether more of the latter would belong if they could but are excluded by courses which don’t admit women, we don’t know. What we do know is that in the twenty-first century more than twice as many grassroots Tories (17% of them in fact) go the gym than play golf.

Tim Bale and Paul Webb

Published inBritish Politics

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