There’s a new report out today from Queen Mary University of London on the demographics, beliefs and activism of the grassroots members of the main political parties. It makes for interesting reading as a whole – correcting the Bow Group’s absurd claim that the average age of a Conservative Party member is 72, for example, with the finding that the true figure is 57 (not wildly more than Labour’s 53).
But the section that particularly caught my attention was the questions on the involvement, activism, and membership experience of each Party’s members. Here are some of the findings:
- 14 per cent of Conservative members “prefer not to get involved” in the Party at all – a higher proportion than Labour (7 per cent), Lib Dems (9 per cent) and SNP (11 per cent) members.
- 29 per cent of Conservative members either agree or strongly agree that the “leadership doesn’t pay a lot of attention to members” – a higher proportion than Labour (18 per cent), Lib Dems (11 per cent) and SNP (five per cent) members.
- When asked if “Members have a significant say on party policy”, only 28 per cent of Conservative Party members support the statement, most mildly and only a few “strongly” supporting it. Again the figures for the other parties are far higher: Labour (61 per cent), Lib Dems (75 per cent) and SNP (73 per cent).
- Conservative members are much less likely to support or strongly support the statement “My party encourages its members to get involved in party activities” – 59 per cent of Tories agree with this statement, compared to 85 per cent of Labour members, 88 per cent of Lib Dem members, and 91 per cent of SNP members.
- Tory members are contacted less by their Party. 66 per cent report “frequent” email contact, 12 per cent lower than Labour members. Only 51 per cent report any form of social media contact, 23 per cent lower than Labour and 21 per cent lower than the Lib Dems. Just 52 per cent report having any face-to-face contact with the Party at all – lower than Labour (59 per cent), Lib Dems (60 per cent) and SNP (68 per cent). At 27 per cent, phone contact, too, is lower than Labour (37 per cent) and the Lib Dems (44 per cent).
- A higher proportion of Conservative Party members (45 per cent) report doing no campaigning in “the average month” than do Labour members (41 per cent), Lib Dems (39 per cent), or SNP (29 per cent).
- Just 28 per cent of Tories report being more active than five years ago, fewer than Labour (45 per cent), Lib Dems (39 per cent) and SNP (47 per cent). 48 per cent of Conservatives say they do “about the same” – more than any other party – and a troubling 20 per cent report doing less campaigning than five years ago (more than Labour and the SNP, but fewer than the Lib Dems).
- Finally, while there are signs that similar proportions of Conservative and Labour members leafleted and canvassed in the 2017 election campaign, there are major deficits in other forms of campaigning, including online, and 23 per cent of Tory members told the researchers that they did no campaigning in the election at all:
These figures all come from what the QMUL team describe as an “online survey” of around 1,000 members of each main Party, carried out by YouGov in June 2017, so the usual caveats about the difficulty of identifying representative samples of Party members apply. But the report does still present a fairly clear picture, particularly when you look at where there are stark differences between the reported Conservative experience and that of the members of other parties.
What is revealed? A Conservative Party whose members feel their views are insufficiently listened to, and who know they have little to no say over policy; a Party which is failing to encourage and engage its members in activism, and whose members are, unsurprisingly, less involved in campaigning of almost every sort; in short, a Party with a weak relationship with its members, and a campaign machine which is undermined by relatively low grassroots participation as a result.
This is no surprise, though some of the specifics are worse than I would have guessed. ConservativeHome has warned for several years that a lack of internal democracy, combined with a dismissive or even openly hostile attitude to grassroots members, was doing serious damage to the fabric and campaigning capacity of the Conservative Party. My series, published in September, on the problems suffered by the Tory campaign machine during the 2017 election illustrated in the field several of the issues that the QMUL report now confirms as general concerns among the Conservative membership.
More evidence to reinforce ConservativeHome’s message is welcome – albeit grimly so, given that these problems were predicted, only to be ignored, just as the signs of those predictions coming true were subsequently ignored, too.
These problems are not going away, and the head-in-the-sand approach has proved unsurprisingly ineffective. The onus is therefore on the Conservative Party’s leadership to act, and for the membership to insist that it does so. I wrote in September that the first step required for the Party to reform was a new Chairman. That has yet to happen – though reports of a forthcoming reshuffle increasingly suggest the Prime Minister intends to replace Sir Patrick McLoughlin soon, potentially with Brandon Lewis.
Whoever the new Party Chairman might be, he or she will require three things to succeed:
First, they must know that the Chairman’s role is no longer one of doing intermittent tricky TV interviews, or rallying the troops with warm words, but of urgent and drastic reform of the Conservative Party as a political fighting machine, above all else.
Second, they must be willing to tread on toes if necessary – be it inside CCHQ, in the Parliamentary Party, on the Party Board, around the Cabinet table or in Downing Street. This task is too important to the future of our Party and our country for it to be botched or left half-done due to misplaced deference, diplomacy, politeness, or friendship. Charm will be useful, but a bit of brute force is probably going to be required along the way, too.
Third, they will need the committed and clear backing of the Prime Minister to get things done. The Downing Street team would never publicly admit this, but the reality is that while the task of Party reform must be carried out now, it will only pay dividends in the post-May era, at the next election and in other elections beyond that. Given the amount already on her plate, it’s easy to imagine circumstances in which she might be tempted to ask her new Chairman not to annoy one vested interest in the Party or another, in order to make the work of governing a bit easier. No politician wants to take short-term pain so that some other politician can enjoy the long-term gain, but in this case that cannot be avoided, so the temptation must be resisted when it arises.
If that all sounds difficult, that’s because it probably will be. But, as the numbers above demonstrate yet again, it is entirely necessary.
There is, I’m pleased to report, some good news in all this. The Conservative Party is suffering serious problems among its grassroots membership and malfunctions in its campaign machine – and yet it still managed to secure 13.6 million votes, 42.3 per cent, last June. Just imagine what we could achieve if our Party actually listens to, enthuses and supports its members, recruits and inspires new supporters, and gets a lot more people out campaigning. The potential is there to achieve something remarkable.