Tory members 'a breed apart' from other main parties, study finds

Delegates listen to Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May as she addresses the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
Delegates listen to Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May as she addresses the Conservative Party conference in Manchester. Photograph: Hannah Mckay/Reuters

Conservative members are “a breed apart” from members of the other main political parties, with much stronger tendencies towards socially illiberal and authoritarian attitudes and completely different views on Brexit, a study has found.

The biggest ever polling of party members’ opinions shows that Tories are half as likely to support gay marriage as members of Labour, the Lib Dems or the SNP and significantly more supportive of the death penalty, obedience to authority and censorship of the media “to uphold moral standards”.

The findings by academics at Queen Mary University of London could spell trouble for the chances of a more socially liberal candidate such as Ruth Davidson succeeding Theresa May as Tory leader, given that the final choice is made in a vote of party members.

The study also shows that almost five years after David Cameron sought to move the party towards a more socially inclusive position by pushing through the gay marriage law, Tory members – 44% of whom are 65 or older – remain resistant.

Gay marriage chart

The polling on social issues offers something of a clue as to why Jacob Rees-Mogg, the avowedly traditionalist backbencher who opposes gay marriage and abortion, has topped several polls of members by ConservativeHome on who should be the next Tory leader.

The study found that 41% of Conservatives backed gay marriage, compared to more than 80% of members of the other three parties. More than half of Tory members back the death penalty, 84% believe schools “should teach children to obey authority” and 44% support the censorship of films and magazines – significantly more than any other parties, although SNP members tended to be less liberal than their peers in Labour and the Lib Dems.

A team led by Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, began tracking the opinions of party members after the 2015 election. The latest figures come from polling of more than 1,000 members of each of the four parties following last June’s election.

The study found that the various party members’ opinions on leaving the EU were more divergent still, with only Conservatives supporting a harder Brexit. Around a quarter of Conservative members support the UK remaining in the EU’s single market or customs, while just 14% back a referendum on a final deal.

In contrast, there is overwhelming backing for these options among members of the other parties, even Labour, which under Jeremy Corbyn is occupying the middle ground over Brexit. Among Labour members, 87% want the UK to remain in the single market, 85% in the customs union, and 78% support a new referendum.

Brexit views chart

Similarly, on the economy there is what the authors describe as “a gulf between the Tory grassroots and the rest”: just 11% of Conservative members agree that austerity has been taken too far, against 98% for Labour, 93% in the SNP and 75% among Lib Dems.

Such divides can also be seen on issues such as income redistribution and the idea that working class people do not receive a fair share of the nation’s wealth.

Bale said party members were the footsoldiers of British democracy, but “that doesn’t necessarily mean they look like or think like their parties’ voters – or, indeed, look or think like each other”.

He said: “The Tory grassroots in particular are something of a breed apart from their Labour, Lib Dem and SNP counterparts.”

Social and moral views chart

These differences have sometimes been put down to a much older Conservative membership, and the party does have notably more members aged 65 or older than the other three parties. Nonetheless, the average age for members was remarkably similar, at 57 for Tories, 53 for Labour, 52 for the Lib Dems and 54 in the SNP.

The study found that while Labour had a higher proportion of members aged 25-44 than the Tories, it had a particular “bulge” of people aged from the mid-50s to early 60s, a phenomenon the authors suggest could be caused by older supporters who left during the Blair years returning under Jeremy Corbyn.

All four parties are overwhelmingly white and middle class in membership, with the Lib Dems having the highest proportion from the ABC1 social group, at 88%, against the Conservatives’ 86%.

The Tories are notably more imbalanced on gender, with 71% of the membership male, against 53% for Labour, 63% for the Lib Dems and 57% for the SNP.