One of the benefits of being a student again is getting access to academic journals, which means I can see some of the latest research in political science before it gets chopped up, filtered and misrepresented by the press – if it’s ever covered at all. Instead, I get to read it, then chop it up, filter and misrepresent it to you here.
One new article published in Political Studies is ‘Not as Bad as We Feared or Even Worse Than We Imagined? Assessing and Explaining Conservative Party Members’ Views on Coalition‘ by Tim Bale and Paul Webb.
The main purpose of their research was to look at whether support for the coalition – and any potential future coalition – varied across the Conservative party, and whether those views changed depending on other factors such as their age or political views. Their conclusions on this subject were that the most important factors in support for the coalition, and for any potential future coalition, was dependent on ideological factors rather than demographic ones. As they put it:
In general, we found that demographics (apart perhaps from higher education) and activism do not appear to have much to do with members’ views on whether coalition was the right move in 2010. What matters more is ideology and leadership – more specifically whether members feel the leadership respects them, how close they feel ideologically to their leader, how well they feel David Cameron has performed as Prime Minister, and whether or not they like the policies his government has introduced
While this discovery – that there is a significant chunk of Conservative opinion that would prefer another coalition to returning to opposition – is interesting, what I want to concentrate on here is some of the data Bale and Webb have found out about the general views of Conservative members. These are the statistics they base the detailed work of their study on, but for the general audience they’re interesting in themselves. (The statistics were gathered by a YouGov survey of Conservative members)
The survey found that the average Tory member was 59 years old and more likely to be an ABC1 (83% of respondents) white (95.6%) male (68.9%) from London and the south east (56.8%). They also see themselves as right-wing (8.37 on a 1-10 left-right scale) and more right-wing than David Cameron (who they see as being at 7.02 on the same scale). Questions on left-right and liberal-authoritarian issues, found that they tended to be on the right economically and authoritarian socially, but “more culturally conservative than they are economically right-wing.”
On political issues, you probably won’t be surprised to find that they tend to support Conservative government policies and not support Liberal Democrat ones. In general, their support for or agreement with Conservative policies was 65.6% with 21% opposing or disagreeing. For Liberal Democrat government policies, those averages were 33.9% in favour and 39.3% against. The main outliers from those trends were limited support for university tuition fees (46% support), ring-fencing NHS spending (50%), cuts in defence spending (17%), not restricting workers from Romania and Bulgaria (23%), same-sex marriage (24%) and protecting the overseas aid budget (18%). The pupil premium – a Liberal Democrat policy – gets significantly more support (58%) than other Lib Dem ones.
To give an idea of the policies they do support, here are the percentages of support for other policies:
You might notice that the question of EU membership isn’t in that list. That’s not because it wasn’t asked, but because the results are so interesting that I decided to deal with them separately. The respondents were asked their opinion on two subjects: whether they would support Britain remaining in the EU after membership was renegotiated (Cameron’s current policy) and whether they would support British withdrawal from the EU today.
There’s a narrow majority in favour of continuing membership after renegotiation – 53.6& support it and 37.9% oppose it. On the question of whether Britain should withdraw from the EU today, though, their view is clear: 70.8% support it, and 20.4% oppose it. Just to make that clear: 71% of Conservative Party members think Britain should leave the EU. If you want to take away a single statistic to explain why David Cameron has a UKIP problem, this is it.
The main thrust of this research is the coalition, and as saw at the start, it shows that the main dividing line in the Conservatives about whether they support the coalition or not is an ideological one, not one determined by demographics or how active in the party they are. The closer a member feels to the leadership position, the more likely they are to support the coalition. While that might sound somewhat obvious, the important finding is that it is a stronger factor in determining support for the coalition than any other.
The members were also asked their opinion on their preferred option in 2010: 41% wanted a Conservative minority government, 33% thought the coalition was the best option and 24% would have gone for a second general election. (These are all hindsight figures, not necessarily what they were thinking at the time) That 33% tend to have more support for both Conservative and Liberal Democrat policy, position themselves slightly to the left of the party average (but still perceive themselves to be further right than David Cameron) and aren’t quite as Eurosceptic as the rest of the party, though a majority of them (54.1%) would still support EU withdrawal now.
What this research gives us is a very interesting insight into the Conservative Party membership, and a sense that while there may be support for the coalition within the party, it’s only for a relationship of necessity, not a great meeting of minds and principles. However, it also shows that there is support within the party for the sort of red meat conservatism that’s being proposed at their conference this week. However, as much as the leadership might try and assuage the membership with policies, the membership’s view on the EU could still be a massive problem for them and a huge opportunity for UKIP to exploit.
The research project was about the coalition and Conservative members’ views on that as it correlates to their background and beliefs, but what I’d love to see (if it’s possible from the data) is how those views on Europe and the EU break down across the membership. We can see that those who are more in favour of the coalition are less likely to support EU withdrawal, but how does that view break down in terms of age and party activity? It’d be interesting to see if activists are more likely to be in favour of withdrawal than armchair members or vice versa, given the implications that might have on the effect of UKIP defectors. Are they gaining those who do the work, or those who sit at home?