Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.
With local elections only a few weeks away, the Conservatives, like the nation’s other political parties, will be relying on their activists to do the on-the-ground campaigning that can occasionally make a difference between winning a seat or even a council. Those of us who aren’t directly involved tend to think that all those activists must be fully-paid up members. But we should think again.
Research – and we’re pretty sure the experience of many ConservativeHome veterans, too – suggests that at least some of those proverbial ‘boots on the ground’ are worn by people who don’t actually join their favourite party, but still want to help it win. Drawing on surveys conducted for our ESRC-funded party members project in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 general election, my colleagues Paul Webb, Monica Poletti, and I have been looking at differences in campaign activity at that election between, on the one hand, Conservative Party members and, on the other, people who strongly identified with the party but who hadn’t gone so far as to join it – people we’ll call Tory-supporting non-members.
You can find our detailed findings here, but they are easy to summarise. Demographically and ideologically, the two groups – members and strong supporters – are in some ways like each other, and in some ways not. The average age of members in our YouGov surveys was 54, of strong supporters 57. Some 75 per cent of members and 69 per cent of supporters could be labelled ABC1s. And both were similarly, well, conservative: on a scale running from zero (very left-wing) to ten (very right-wing), members placed themselves at 7.8 and strong supporters placed themselves at 7.5.
Tory members, though, were more likely than Tory-supporting non-members to be graduates (the percentages were 38 and 25 respectively) but there was a much better gender balance among supporters: 48 per cent of the latter were women compared to only 29 per cent of members.
When it comes to campaigning, though, there were big differences – at least at first glance. Online, some 40 per cent of Conservative members had liked something by their party or by one of its candidates on Facebook, compared to just 10 per cent of Tory-supporting non-members. The difference on Twitter (we asked about tweets and retweets) was even more striking – 26 per cent vs three per cent.
Offline, it was the same story. Members were ten times more likely (30 per cent vs three per cent) to have displayed an election poster in their window. And they were twenty times as likely to have delivered (to claim they had delivered!) leaflets (44 per cent vs two per cent), with a not dissimilar difference when it came to the even more demanding task of phone or face-to-face canvassing (37 per cent vs two per cent).
So far, then, so predictable. Members are by definition more committed to their party than non-members, even those who see themselves as strong supporters. It’s hardly surprising, then, to see them doing more for it when election time rolls around.
But here’s the thing: it’s vital to remember – especially perhaps when we’re thinking about the Conservative Party – that there are far more people out there who don’t join the party but strongly support it than there are members.
By our reckoning, in 2015, when the party had around 150,000 members, there were probably just over three million voters who leaned very strongly toward the Tories. So even if each of them who did anything at all for the party during the campaign did far less than paid up members, the sum of their individual efforts was at least as great and probably greater – at least when it came to ‘low intensity’ activities. As a result, the contribution to campaigning that non-members can make shouldn’t be sniffed at, especially when the Conservative Party seems to be finding it harder than some of its rivals to recruit.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the Tories don’t need to worry about falling too far behind Labour or being overtaken by the Liberal Democrats when it comes to membership. For one thing, it’s often paid-up members (and some who haven’t paid-up!) who mobilise non-members into doing stuff for their party at election. For another, as we’ve seen, its members who are much more willing to do the traditional, harder, voter-facing tasks like leafletting and canvassing: tasks that any campaign on the ground worth its salt still needs doing in order to make what can sometimes be a crucial difference on the day.