Regardless of the recent endless political convulsions and intrigue, one thing is certain: party conference season is going ahead as usual.
For the ordinary members of the parties concerned, however, conferences matter. They afford an opportunity not just to let your hair down for a few days, but also to renew your faith and commitment to the cause. You get the chance, too, to talk at fringe events with politicians you might otherwise only get to see on the telly. And, unless you’re a Tory and therefore have no say in such matters, you even get to decide on policies that, theoretically anyway, might make it into your party’s manifesto.
But there’s a problem here too. The “ordinary members” of the UK’s political parties aren’t really that ordinary. In fact, party members are, at least in the strictest sense of the word, positively abnormal. True, getting on for 1 million Brits belong to a political party – but that leaves tens of millions who don’t, and who would probably never dream of joining one either.
That doesn’t, of course, mean that grassroots members are all as weird and way out as some of their media stereotypes suggest. Not every grassroots Conservative is a blue-rinsed dragon or a Colonel Blimp – or, for that matter, an oleaginous “Tory boy” (or girl). Likewise, not every Labour member is a middle-class, Corbyn-supporting “Trot” or a salt-of-the-earth trade unionist. Not all members of the SNP are merciless and monomaniacal “cybernats”. Liberal Democrats don’t all sport beards and open-toed sandals. Greens aren’t all tree-hugging ecowarriors with white dreads and a similarly hirsute dog on a string. And to characterise the Brexit party’s registered supporters (it doesn’t have members, as such) as David Cameron once characterised Ukip’s members, as “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”, is – probably – similarly unfair.
Even if such stereotypes about Britain’s party members reflected reality, that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. The variety they seem to offer might, after all, mean that the country’s biggest political parties were at least collectively – if not individually – representative of the UK as a whole.
The problem – as revealed in a new book I’ve written with Paul Webb and Monica Poletti, called Footsoldiers: Political Party Membership in the 21st Century – is that this doesn’t seem to be the case.
Take class. Much can be made of the fact that the Tory rank and file, which chose Boris Johnson and seems to be gagging for a no-deal Brexit, is overwhelmingly middle class – certainly far more so than voters as a whole. Using figures from the British Election Study, around 61% of the electorate can be assigned to the social grades that comprise managerial, clerical and professional careers – whereas the figure for the Tory membership is a whopping 86%. The figure here for Lib Dems is 88% and 80% for Greens.
However, at the other end of the scale, only 23% of Labour members fall into the categories that include skilled/unskilled manual workers, lower-grade workers and the unemployed – as opposed to just under 40% of the population as a whole. This is both symptom and cause, perhaps, of the party’s seemingly inexorable loss of support among the country’s (admittedly shrinking) working class. The SNP (28% of whose membership are in this category) is slightly more representative – but only slightly.
The Brexit party came along after we completed our survey research, but, if its registered supporters are anything like Ukip’s members (66% in the roughly middle-class strata, 34% in the working-class range), then they might actually be the most socially representative of all the large parties – more working class than the self-proclaimed party of the workers, if you like.
When it comes to gender, it is easy to pour scorn on the Tories for the fact that more than two-thirds of grassroots Conservatives are men – a proportion that contrasts with the situation in the Labour party, which, in the Corbyn era, has come much closer to parity. In so doing Labour matches the Greens’ 52% male to 48% female ratio. The SNP (57:43) is getting there, but the Lib Dems are progressing only to the extent that just under four out of 10 of its members are women – something Jo Swinson will surely want to change. As for the Brexit party, we can’t know for sure, but if Ukip’s membership is anything to go by, then three-quarters of its registered supporters will be men.
But the biggest membership challenge for the parties is ethnicity. Getting on for 20% of the UK’s population is from an ethnic minority, but at least 95% of the members of all (yes, all) its biggest political parties are white – and that includes Labour, in spite of the fact that it has a hugely disproportionate share (ie, at least two-thirds) of the BAME vote and dominates the cities in which many minority communities are concentrated.
Even more worryingly, the relative absence of people of colour doesn’t seem to have changed very much – in marked contrast to the country as a whole – since the pioneering academic surveys of party members were conducted nearly three decades ago.
That absence risks perpetuating an already vicious cycle. People from ethnic minority groups don’t vote as much as their white counterparts, and are hardly likely to match them if they don’t see themselves reflected not just among MPs who sit at Westminster, but also among the grassroots members who knock on their doors in order to get those MPs elected.
In these circumstances, simply sitting back and waiting for more working-class people, more women and more of those from ethnic minorities to join parties of their own accord is just not going to cut it.
Yes, our research shows that potential recruits tend to approach parties rather than the other way round. But it also shows that they can be prompted to do so, particularly in response to what they see and hear in the media. In other words, messaging and visibility can make a big difference.
More than anything, though, parties need to try harder to dispel the myth – and it is a myth – that party membership is only for those willing and able to give up all their free (or family) time, those who already know people in the party, and those determined to make a career in politics: for now, these are still boxes that middle-class white men seem much more likely to tick. That needs to change.
• Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and the co-author of Footsoldiers: Political Party Membership in the 21st Century