Welcome to the “buzzily professional” site which is “required reading for all students of Conservatism” – so writes Matthew Parris about ConservativeHome in today’s Times. Far be it from us to declare this about ourselves, but we are not so self-flagellating as to reject praise when it comes our way.
More important than those kind words, though, are Parris’s musings on how best to gauge the opinions of the Conservative grassroots.
No Boris Johnson fan, he dislikes the news that this month’s ConHome survey of Party members ranks Boris Johnson at the top of the future leader stakes. That’s his right, though to dispute the finding rather than dislike it needs some basis. The anecdata of whom he has met at association events are interesting but not on themselves entirely compelling (the question of whether people are entirely unguarded about their opinions in conversation with journalists doesn’t come up, for example).
His psephological questions about our survey are reasonable; we are the first to say that it is a survey, not a weighted poll. It is also true to say that “there is no way to access systematically the national Tory membership’s considered view on who should be the next Tory leader“, even for big budget pollsters, as the Conservative Party’s membership list is private – indeed, it has only just been centralised into one list by CCHQ for the first time.
But that isn’t the same as saying we can’t know anything about what Party members think. It’s a fair and interesting question to consider how we might best do so.
The survey is one way to get into those thoughts. ConservativeHome’s survey panel consists of pushing 3,500 Party members – a base of almost three per cent of the entire population under scrutiny. We’re expanding that panel every week, which helps. Of those 3,500, over 1,000 take part in any given survey, often more.
Are they completely representative? It’s unlikely – as Parris writes, they’re by definition somewhat more active than the average in that they’re coming to a political website to engage in its discussions in the first place. I suspect you’ll see association officers, councillors, council and Parliamentary candidates, and rank and file activists, over-represented, along with those who are more into online news and social media.
Contra Parris, I don’t think it’s the case that that skew inherently makes our respondents more Brexity or hardline than the wider membership, particularly post-UKIP. Many are likely more not less disposed to be loyalists to the Conservative Party itself – and I’m not sure of his logic in suggesting younger people are likely to be more hardline in Brexit than their older counterparts. During the Cameron years, their survey responses were often more pro-Cameron than the stereotype might dictate.
His point about the unpolitical and “silent” character of Conservative members is certainly a resonant and traditional one. But I wonder if it is really true any longer. The 50 years of membership he cites as authority for this view is the clue: not that long experience is a disqualifier, but that the Conservative Party of today (124,000 members) is an extremely pared-back group compared to the far larger membership which existed during most of Parris’s time within it.
As we’ve recounted at length, the Party’s undersupply of members means that it now rests on the very hard work of a grassroots base who are proportionately far more engaged than, say, Labour’s newfound mass membership. At the same time, the national trend away from joining things, the growth in negative attitudes towards Conservatives in particular, and the sometimes alienating attitudes of senior figures towards grassroots members have taken their toll.
In other words: the barely-there Tory member, signed up for the occasional social function but not really that fussed about the politics, might still exist but they are no longer anything like the majority.
Encouragingly, what evidence there is from weighted scientific polling implies the insights of the ConHome panel are quite good. The findings of YouGov, who poll members for The Times, often come notably close to our own results (eg here, here and here). And of course trends are telling even if one disputes total results – even Parris thinks it “obvious” that recent events will have made Johnson more popular among the members.
The point is that the thoughts of the Conservative grassroots may be hard to know, but not impossible. This site’s work, its survey but also its regular reporting, both direct and on the evidence gathered by others, helps to shine a light. We know more today than we did before – and we aim to know even more tomorrow.