The youth of today will probably never vote Ukip. Is that great news for the Conservative Party?, Telegraph, 26 June 2014

Ukip is currently polling between 15 and 20 per cent among the electorate as a whole, but its support is seriously skewed towards older, less well-educated voters. Indeed, one of the party’s spokespeople famously blamed its failure to do anything like as well in London as it did in the rest of the country at local and European elections on the fact that the capital had more than its fair share of “educated, cultured and young” people. A new survey of the nation’s university students by Youthsight suggests that Nigel Farage is going to find it incredibly difficult to do much about this. It reveals that only 4 per cent of UK students would currently vote Ukip. It also suggests why that might be – and why the Conservatives should be concerned, too.

One reason why students aren’t attracted to Ukip is because they see the party as being long way to the Right of where they see themselves. On a scale running from zero to ten, where zero represents very Left-wing and ten very Right-wing, the average British student places themself at 4.6. When asked to place political parties on the same scale, the same students locate Labour, on average, at 4.1 and the Conservatives at 6.9 – which partly explains why Ed Miliband’s party is more popular among students than David Cameron’s. But students locate Ukip at 7.6 – a yawning ideological gap that is hard to bridge.

Just as problematic for Ukip is the widespread perception among students that it is racist. Six out of ten students think that’s the case, with those from ethnic minority communities even more convinced than their white counterparts. There are some differences between students who see themselves as more Conservative than Labour or Liberal Democrat: only just over half who see themselves as Tories consider Ukip to be racist, whereas around three-quarters of those who identify with Labour or the Lib Dems would paste that label on Farage’s party. Students who see themselves as Conservatives are also much more likely to think that Ukip is actually saying what a lot of people think but are too afraid to say.

Another crucial problem that Ukip faces when it comes to attracting the young and educated is that students are remarkably liberal when it comes to immigration. True, only 9 per cent of students think that the government should allow in anyone who wants to come and live here. But a further 72 per cent are happy for it to allow in anyone who has a job or another source of financial support. Only 11 per cent want immigration stopped – and almost half of them would make an exception for those coming from one of the other 27 EU member states. Nor is there any significant variation on the issue between students coming from white and those coming from ethnic minority backgrounds, or between students who see themselves as Conservative and those who see themselves as Labour or Lib Dem.

One of Ukip’s other bugbears is the European Convention on Human Rights. Here again, the party is faced with a bunch of people who, for the most part, see no problem with the liberal status quo. Only 12 per cent of students overall think that the UK should withdraw from the Convention.

So is there anything that Ukip can do to get British students to at least think about voting for them? For instance, would a promise to get rid of loan-funded university tuition fees make a difference? Maybe – but maybe not. Just over a quarter of students said that a Ukip promise to abolish tuition fees would make them more likely to vote for the party. But getting on for two-thirds said it would make no difference, and a few said it would actually make it less likely.

Now, Ukip strategists are unlikely to worry too much about all this: students aren’t their target audience after all. But students are the middle aged and the elderly of tomorrow, and there’s a lot of research around which suggests that they don’t shed their social liberalism once they’ve graduated. Again, this may not bother Ukip: the party only needs to get into double-figures to matter in British politics even if it can’t win parliamentary seats. But there is one party that should care about the findings of this survey, and that’s the Conservatives.

Any Tory who thinks that the party’s long-term electoral interests are best served by trying to match or even to “out-Ukip” Ukip should think again. Only 19 per cent of students currently say they would vote Conservative. Doubtless, as they grow older and begin to earn a salary, own property and pay taxes, they will give the Conservatives more of a hearing – but only as long as Tories don’t try so hard to keep up with Nigel Farage that they end up turning themselves back into “the nasty party”.

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Why do Tories defect to UKIP?, Policy Network, 16 June 2014 (with Paul Webb)

Even if those who defect to populist parties do so initially only to register a protest vote, the emergence of ‘cultural’ as opposed to ‘class’ voting means that a sizable proportion may never return to the mainstream 

The rise of populist radical right parties throughout Europe continues to preoccupy politicians, especially after the European Parliament elections in May 2014.  Their strength and significance may or may not be the result of what some scholars see as an inevitable shift to ‘cultural’ as opposed to ‘class’ voting, but it varies considerably between countries, depending on both supply (the parties themselves, how well they’re led, and the alternatives on offer) and demand (how voters are feeling and what they’re looking for).  One thing, however, is for sure: where they gain a foothold, such parties present a serious, sometimes existential threat to ‘mainstream’, often older parties: they compete with them for votes, while the need to respond to that threat potentially promotes both inter-party conflict and intra-party strife as policy is adjusted in response to the populist fringe.

It now looks as if Great Britain, and especially England, is no longer immune to this phenomenon.  Much of the attention paid to the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the wake of the European elections has been focused on its capacity to eat into Labour’s core vote – and clearly this has to be a worry for the Party’s strategists if it carries on much longer.  The more immediate electoral threat, however, remains to the Conservatives since, even if the gap may be narrowing, there are far higher numbers of people who previously voted Tory who now vote for UKIP than there are people who previously voted Labour.  As things stand, that threat is more indirect than direct, in the sense that UKIP is not so much likely to win seats from the Conservative Party, as cause it instead to lose them to Labour or the Liberal Democrats by attracting voters who might otherwise have voted Tory.  However, given how close the 2015 general election in the UK looks likely to be, that indirect effect could mean the difference between the Tories staying in government and ending up back in opposition, particularly if UKIP, as many experts predict it will, manages to more than double the 3.1% vote share it achieved in 2010.
 
Centre-right parties like the Conservatives traditionally manage to make a convincing (and historically electorally fruitful) cross-class, traditional, authoritarian, and nationalist appeal, but – theoretically at least –  they are electorally vulnerable to the populist radical right in the sense that the ideological gap between ‘their’ voters and the latter is already small. It is also a gap over which those voters may be sorely tempted to leap should they begin to suspect that ‘their’ party is softening its stance, possibly in order to get into government or as the result of the compromises that governing itself makes inevitable.  And they may be all the more likely to take that leap if they can vote for a populist radical right party that is not ‘toxic’ in the sense of being seen as within, rather than beyond, the pale by ‘respectable’ people. Just as importantly, and perhaps more even so , those who normally vote for the mainstream centre-right – especially those alienated by rapid social change – might be tempted to join other voters in ‘defecting’ to the populist radical right.  Even if those who defect do so initially only to register a protest vote, a sizable proportion of these lost sheep may never return to the fold.

All the above applies to the British Conservative Party and UKIP – and not just to the Tories’ voters but to their members, too. A survey of the Conservative grassroots that we conducted with the help of YouGov last year suggested that that a significant – indeed, alarming – minority of Tory members are sorely tempted to vote for UKIP.  We asked them how likely they would be to vote for other parties at a general election on a scale running from 0 (never) to 10 (very likely); the mean score for UKIP was 5, compared to 2.1 for the Liberal Democrats and 1.6 for Labour, which immediately illustrates the relative attraction of UKIP for Conservatives. If we sub-divide this scale into three broad categories – unlikely to vote UKIP (0-3), possible UKIP voters (4-6), and likely UKIP voters (7-10) – we find  that virtually identical numbers (28.8% and 28.9%) fall into the latter two categories, which in itself is sobering news for the party: these people, after all, are paid-up party members, rather than just casual sympathisers or people who voted Tory in 2010; apparently, 58% of them by no means rule out voting for UKIP.

Further analysis suggests that those Tory members most tempted by UKIP, are cultural rather than economic conservatives.  Put crudely, many of them want to pull up the drawbridge on immigration and Europe, but few of them are flat-taxers, rabid privatisers or zealous state-shrinkers.  What is also noticeable is that they do not feel valued or respected by their own leadership.  Furthermore, they resent the idea and the experience of coalition, and even regard David Cameron – their own party leader and the country’s Prime Minister – as ideologically more remote from them than they do UKIP. 

Our research, then, would seem to support the idea that the ideological and policy appeal of the populist radical right, at least for those who normally support the centre-right, is, indeed, predominantly cultural rather than economic.  This makes things very tricky for the Tories and their counterparts in Europe.  Since the proportion of voters who are culturally conservative is likely to shrink over time given increased levels of immigration, mixed marriage (or cohabitation) and greater access to higher education, matching the offer made by the populist radical right may not be a particularly smart move in the long term.  And even in the short term, it may not be such a great idea either.  Firstly, it may put off well-heeled, well-educated, small-l liberal voters who are a key component of the centre-right’s electoral coalition.  Secondly, for some of the same (but also for much more hard-headed) reasons, it may alienate some of the centre-right’s business backers.  And, thirdly, the populist radical right, as long as it remains in opposition rather than government, can always respond to any matching of its offer by simply upping the ante.  That might not worry some ordinary members of the Conservative Party back in Britain, but it might cause problems for their leaders who show every sign of wanting to hold on to office both now and in the foreseeable future.

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‘UKIP shouldn’t be an option for any true conservative’, ConservativeHome, 29 May 2014

The Conservative Party only has itself to blame for the rise of UKIP – not because it ignored the pet peeves that drive Nigel Farage’s ‘people’s army’ but because, in the electorally-desperate early 2000s, it pushed the populist button itself (‘foreign land’, fuel-protests, Tony Martin, travellers, ‘are you thinking what we’re thinking?’), then suddenly vacated that ‘nasty party’ territory after 2005, only to end up in 2010 making an unrealisable promise to the electorate about reducing immigration to the tens of thousands.

In short, the Conservative Party couldn’t have teed things up more beautifully for UKIP if it had tried. That doesn’t mean, however, that Tories should vote for it.

One thing you’ll often hear from those who have done and say they’ll continue to do so is that UKIP is the party the Conservatives used to (and still ought to) be.  I beg to differ – big time.  If we look at what this government has been doing since 2010, the party that the Conservatives used to be is – surprise, surprise – still the Conservative Party.   Just look at the evidence.

You believe in making the nation’s books balance?  You’ve got a Chancellor in George Osborne who’s pursuing the single most ambitious fiscal consolidation this country has ever seen – and doing it for the most part by cutting spending rather than raising taxes, and by rolling back the welfare state but in such a way as to protect the nation’s senior citizens.

You want to preserve law and order?  Does anyone seriously think it’s at risk with Chris Grayling and Theresa May at the helm?

You believe in traditional rigour and teaching methods in education?  That’s exactly what you’re getting from Michael Gove.  And from David Willetts you’re getting a higher education system where the money follows the student and where the cost is borne by those who benefit most directly – a system that hasn’t, by the way, put people from lower income backgrounds off following their dreams.

You want to preserve the integrity of the UK?  David Cameron knows that he’s not the most popular man in Scotland and leads a party for which independence would be a positive, electorally speaking.  Yet he’s still going into bat for the Union.

You care about Britain’s national sovereignty?  Fewer governments have pursued more opt-outs and said no to more initiatives from Brussels than this one, and no-one else has a chance of delivering an in-out referendum so the country can make up its own mind.

And finally, you want to know that the UK is back in control of its borders but doesn’t cut its nose off to spite its face by denying entry to people who will make a vital contribution to the country’s future?  This government, subject to its international obligations (and, yes, such things should and do matter), has done everything that’s practically possible to balance control and Britain’s long-term economic interests.

Given all this, the only small-c conservative voter who might still be tempted by UKIP is one who believes that the proverbial man (or woman) in the street really does know better than people with experience and expertise, who prefers direct over representative democracy, and who believes in privileging the principles of libertarian non-interference over the government considering matters case-by-case.

Whatever you think of these ideas, no-one could seriously argue that they are conservative.  Indeed, any true Tory should be highly suspicious of a party which privileges ideology over facts, which dismisses the value of knowledge and judgement, which can’t admit the inevitability of historical change, and which defies the common sense on which it continually (but erroneously) claims to have some sort of monopoly.  Parties that do that end up denying climate change, wanting to do away with the NHS,  the minimum wage, and health and safety, and campaigning to bring back grammar schools – none of which are supported either by evidence or, for that matter, by a convincing majority of the public.

No, the essence of conservatism lies not in rejecting but in coming to terms with realities rooted in social change and changing popular preferences, the better to ensure that we preserve what’s worth preserving.  Not for no reason is Edmund Burke a Tory hero: it was he, after all, who warned that ‘a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.’

Conservatism, unlike what’s on offer from UKIP is and always will be a living, breathing governing philosophy rather than a kneejerk, nostalgic response to whatever it is about contemporary life that people don’t like. ‘We’ll stop the world, and help you to get off’, is UKIP’s central message.  To pinch a phrase from a famous Labour politician, Nye Bevan, who spent the last few years of his left battling populists who likewise wanted the impossible and wanted it now: ‘You call that statesmanship?  I call it an emotional spasm.’

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‘How do you solve a problem like…Nigel? What Austria can teach the Conservatives about dealing with UKIP’, LSE British Politics and Policy Blog, 27 May 2011

If UKIP manages to do even half as well at next year’s general election as it has evidently done this time, Britain’s mainstream parties are facing nothing less than a transformation in their competitive environment. Shielded for so long by first-past-the-post, they have never really experienced a truly serious competitive threat on their far-right flank. Even when the National Front and the British National Party experienced successes, they were short-lived and the threat they presented never came close to that posed by populist radical right parties in continental Europe. There, since the 1990s, the success of those parties’ anti-system, anti-elite and anti-immigration appeals has put mainstream actors, especially on the centre-right of the political spectrum, under significant, even existential pressure – pressure that has led many of them, after attempting in vain to dismiss the whole thing as a temporary problem, to adopt what one might call a ‘radical right-lite’ strategy.

We have recently begun to see the beginnings of something similar in Britain, particularly from the Conservatives – the party most immediately threatened by UKIP’s popularity. The Tories, of course, have a long history of restrictive rhetoric and policies on immigration, driven partly by their commitment to cultural continuity and national sovereignty and partly by their concern to show how much more in touch with public opinion they are than Labour or indeed the Lib Dems. UKIP’s rise, however, has prompted the Tory leadership to further sharpen its message on immigration, as well as on the EU. UKIP’s big win at the European elections will prompt calls for Cameron and co. to go even further in this direction.

Overseas experience – particularly from one crucial case – suggests, however, that they should think twice before following that advice. The Austrian centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP) has competed against the populist radical right Freedom Party (FPÖ) over almost three decades, giving it the time and the opportunity to run the gamut of responses, all the way from trying to play it down and put it down, through aping its appeals, to, eventually, a six-year coalition government. The fact that, despite some ups and downs, the FPÖ is still very much around, scoring nearly 21 per cent at the general election in 2013 and putting in a decent performance at the Europeans this year, should be a warning to anyone in Britain who thinks they have some sort of silver-bullet solution to the threat that UKIP poses to the Conservatives.

To begin with, the Austrian experience suggests that treating the populist radical right as some sort of pariah (‘a bunch of … fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists’, as Mr Cameron famously put it) is not ultimately a sustainable strategy – particularly if the centre-right’s efforts to do so are undermined not only by the media but by people within its own ranks promoting the idea of deals with said pariah. Unfortunately, however, the Austrian experience also suggests that imitating the pariah’s policies and/or bringing it in from the cold doesn’t work either. Shifts towards a more restrictive immigration, integration and asylum policy don’t necessarily help to recapture lost votes – and they may well scare off other voters. Even worse, there is a distinct possibility that ‘banging on’ about the radical right’s signature issues only serves to prime voters to think those issues are even more pressing than they think they are already.

And then there is credibility. Experience from Austria suggests that drastic shifts on immigration and integration merely increase the electorate’s suspicion that mainstream parties are simply playing politics, making them less likely to believe they really care, let alone have any consistent, deliverable policies on the issue. Austria, especially in recent years, also shows us that trying to have it both ways – talking tough on asylum and ‘bad’ immigration while promoting integration and an open market for highly-skilled workers – may not help the centre-right much in this respect either, at least in the short term. No surprise, then, that the Conservatives’ attempts to do just since 2010 that seem to have made very little impression on those Tory voters who appear to have jumped ship to UKIP.

Austrian experience also suggests that such shifts stand little chance of converting many of those voters who would vote for radical right parties anyway. Since those parties can make a good claim to ‘own’ the issues of immigration, integration and asylum, adopting their agenda risks confirming rather than eroding their reputation for speaking truth to power. The Conservatives have and will always fail to outbid UKIP when it comes to its core issues because, like Austria’s populist radical right, it will always be able – and willing – to go one better. In fact, every step in its direction on the part of the Tories will allow UKIP, like the FPÖ, to point to its ability to influence mainstream parties to ‘do the right thing’, therefore making it worth voting for. Meanwhile, any mainstream party which takes too restrictive a stance may well be denying both the nation and itself the benefits of higher economic growth.

But it is not only its consequences for votes and policy that makes such a strategy hazardous. It has consequences for getting into and staying in government too. The ÖVP operates in a PR system; thus, if the FPÖ does well enough, then there is always a possibility of a centre-right/radical right coalition. The Conservatives, however, lack such a safety net – one that that might allow them, like some centre-right parties in other parts of Europe, to gain or hang onto power even with a relatively unimpressive vote share. Conversely, the Tories need to worry about the possibility that cosying up to UKIP might hamper another deal with the Lib Dems, who (unless they really are prepared to be the gift that keeps on giving to their coalition partners) have probably conceded just about as much as they are likely to concede on immigration and Europe. In the longer run, and assuming, for the sake of argument, that a series of hung parliaments eventually produces irresistible pressure for a change of electoral systems, the Austrian experience suggests that co-option into coalition of the populist radical right is no more than a temporary solution anyway.

Given all this, the obvious lesson from Austria for British Conservatives is a simple one – but no less important for that. They should avoid investing too much time, effort and attention in desperately trying to cure a condition that, in all likelihood, can only be managed. UKIP can hardly be dismissed as a distraction. But nor is it going to be easy to dispose of – not if it continues to be well-led and well-covered by a fascinated media, and not while there are significant proportions of the electorate uncomfortable with the cultural, social and economic change which globalisation makes inevitable. After all, UKIP is no anomaly; it is the British example of a Europe-wide phenomenon to which no-one has yet found the answer, and maybe never will.

None of this means that a touch of rhetorical reassurance from the Conservatives to their worried former supporters won’t help a little – but only if it doesn’t lead to promises that can’t be kept or to alienating the many commercial enterprises (and indeed citizens) that thrive on cultural, social and economic change. Better instead to focus on what mainstream centre-right parties generally do best – managing the economy, providing public services that are sufficient without being extravagant, balancing the concerns of traditionalist voters with the requirements of business, and painting their centre-left rivals as profligate soft-touches who couldn’t organise the proverbial piss-up in a brewery – Austrian, British or otherwise.

This post is an edited version of an academic article ‘And it’s good night Vienna. How (not) to deal with the populist radical right: the Conservatives, UKIP and some lessons from the heartland’ by Oliver Gruber and Tim Bale, available now as an early access publication from the journal British Politics.

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David Cameron’s next EU challenge: renegotiation, Telegraph, 26 May 2014

Tory MPs may have agreed not to panic in the light of Ukip’s big win, but that doesn’t mean David Cameron isn’t going to come under a huge amount of pressure from them in the coming days and weeks to do something, anything, to show he’s got the message. One of their demands is bound to be that the Prime Minister not only bring forward the date of any referendum – but also spell out in more detail exactly what it is he wants out of his renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU.

In fact, of course, the kind of EU which Cameron – indeed, all Tory moderates and pragmatists – would feel reasonably content to belong to should be no mystery to anyone by now. After all, he himself set it out in his Bloomberg speech in January 2013. He still wants what he said he wanted back then, namely a 21st Century EU that is “a means to an end – prosperity, stability, the anchor of freedom and democracy both within Europe and beyond her shores – not an end in itself.”

In other words, it’s an EU which stresses internal and external competition, which acknowledges diversity and operates rules and structures that don’t discriminate against those member states not signed up to full-blown currency, banking, and fiscal union. It makes sure that things better done domestically are not being done by Brussels and, if they are, makes moves to put things right.

So far, so easy. But what is more difficult for Conservatives like Cameron who remain broadly in favour of continued membership is what the UK should do if this isn’t the kind of European Union that the other 27 member states actually want or at least feel can be achieved.

For the moment, if he has done nothing else, Cameron has postponed any immediate need to come up with an answer to this awkward question. He has also, with a little help from Angela Merkel, been able to give the impression that the UK, in its bid to renegotiate its relationship and repatriate powers, is not without friends and allies.

But anyone who can resist the lure of wishful thinking or is halfway familiar with the countries in question – Germany, the Nordics, some of the post-communist member states – knows that, forced to choose, they will choose Europe over helping out their new best friend. Unlike the UK, or at least unlike the Conservative Party, they see no going back even if they would like to see some serious changes made.

That is not to say, however, that they will not give a little. The Conservatives’, the country’s and indeed the continent’s best hope is surely some sort of deal done on the basis of devolving powers that a decent majority of member states agree need devolving.

The problem will come if Cameron concludes that the only deal worth having (or at least worth trying to sell back home) is based on Britain getting something that most other member states don’t get. Not unreasonably, they will see special treatment of that kind as freeriding and therefore won’t agree. The same goes for a deal which involves unpicking budgets or serious reform of the CAP. There are simply too many payees – and, whatever the UK thinks, not enough seriously angry payers – to see that happen.

Sensible Conservatives – the kind who still believe they should be Britain’s natural party of government rather than some sort of revolutionary vanguard – know in their hearts what the party and the Prime Minister should do. Starting with the vision of the EU he laid out in his Bloomberg speech, he should figure out what other member states will put up with and then work backwards from there, selling whatever that may be as just what he wanted in the first place and exactly what the country really needs.

That will entail some seriously skilful behind-the-scenes (as opposed to megaphone) diplomacy and, although nobody is talking about a full-blown reconciliation, trying to rebuild some of the bridges that were burned by leaving the EPP group in the European Parliament. The very least the Tories can do on this score is not to allow their desperation to expand (or even simply ensure the survival) their own ECR group to tempt them into offering membership to the populist rivals of the mainstream centre-Right parties whose support Cameron will need for any reform programme worth the name. Most importantly, if the Prime Minister wants to keep Angela Merkel onside anyway, they mustn’t touch the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) with a bargepole.

None of this is pure. Nor is it pretty. But it is politics, at least as practised in an increasingly interdependent continent – and in the real world, too. Those Conservatives who prefer the fantasy version need to grow up and get serious. Cameron’s problem, and therefore Europe’s problem, however, is what his party needs to do and what it actually does are too often two very different things.

This is an edited extract from The Modernisers’ Manifesto, just published by Bright Blue

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The Conservatives will face many challenges after the votes are counted in the European Parliament election, LSE British Politics and Policy Blog, 9 May 2014

To say the Tories are unlikely to do as well in May 2014 as they did in June 2009 is a bit of an understatement. Five years ago they topped the poll, getting just under 4.2 million votes or nearly 28% of the total, and giving them 26 seats. This year it looks like they will not only finish third but may not even achieve 25% of the vote.

In the absolute nightmare scenario, the Tories would be reduced to barely double-figures. In the worst-case it will be around 15 seats. They will be hoping, and probably expecting, however, to get a little closer to 20 than that.  Anything over 20 would still be embarrassing but could probably be spun as something other than devastating – especially if the quirks of the regional electoral system allow David Cameron can at least claim to have beaten Nigel Farage in seats, if not in votes.

Whether the reaction on the Conservative backbenches and at the grassroots will be worse if UKIP tops the poll or if Labour comes first instead is a moot point. Rationally, the second of these two outcomes should probably worry the party more than the first. But many Tories have long since left rationality behind when it comes to Europe and to UKIP. There will be bedwetting, if not blood. Right-wingers will demand policy changes and even those who are less zealous will call for Cameron to get a grip. The most obvious way he can appear to do this is by holding a reshuffle in which Grant Shapps is relieved of the Party Chairmanship and some media-friendly right-wingers (plus some supposedly salt-of-the-earth types) are promoted into the Cabinet or at least on to the front bench. If Number Ten plays things true to form it will – assuming it hasn’t already shot its bolt during the campaign itself – respond by appearing to harden its stance on renegotiation with Europe and conjuring up yet more ‘tough, new’ measures on immigration, ideally ones which involve limiting benefits that can be claimed by migrants from EU member states.

The hope has to be that this will buy time while the bounce that Farage will undoubtedly get from giving Clegg, and now Cameron, a bloody nose fades. If UKIP’s leader has also managed to do the same to Ed Miliband by beating Labour into second place, then things might be a little easier. In that event, it may be possible – especially now that the economy seems to have turned the corner – to persuade the party, and the party in the media, that the ‘real losers’ of this election are Labour and the Lib Dems. Polling should help if it eventually starts to suggest that a lot of those who lent their support to UKIP did so only temporarily, largely in order to give the government a good kicking before settling down again in the run-up to the general election in a year’s time.

It remains a possibility that Cameron will surprise everyone with a genuinely dramatic move, such as declaring in terms that he would like to be shot of the Liberal Democrats sooner rather than later. But it remains only an outside possibility. Rather more likely is a renewal of previous speculation as to who will take over from Cameron should he lose the general election. This is damaging because it is distracting – but probably not fatally so. After all, nobody seriously thinks anyone else but the current occupant of Number 10 will be leading the Party into the next election.

As far as the campaign – such as it is – goes, it will largely focus on the home front. But there is one continental concern that Cameron will have to watch. Since the Conservatives are not a member of any of the big party groups putting up a candidate for the presidency, the Conservatives, like UKIP, do not have a dog in that particular race, which is bound to increase the temptation for some Tories to cite it as an example of the supposedly remote, self-deluded and self-aggrandizing second-raters who want to run Britain from Brussels. Too much overt criticism by Tories of the EPP’s pick, Jean-Claude Juncker, may well irritate other centre-right parties, with whom Cameron needs to keep on reasonably friendly terms if he is to stand any chance of achieving a reform package he can sell at home during a referendum campaign in 2017.

The main concern on this score, however, will come after the campaign is over and bargaining begins. And it involves – perhaps inevitably given Germany’s pre-eminence – Angela Merkel. She is absolutely determined that the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) – the German Eurosceptic party which, despite its limitations, presents a challenge to her CDU – not be lent legitimacy and credibility by being invited by Tory MEPs to join their European Conservatives and Reformist (ECR) group in the European Parliament.

The trouble for the Prime Minister is that the ECR, in order to conform with EP rules that official recognition and funding only goes to groups with at least 25 MEPs from at least seven member states, may, in the wake of a contest that is likely to wipe out some of its existing components, be casting around desperately for some half-way respectable allies. All this could mean Cameron having to choose between, on the one hand, a Tory delegation in Brussels stranded, friendless and powerless, outside the group system or, on the other, sacrificing virtually any chance he has of enlisting Merkel’s help with his renegotiation efforts.  These elections are easily dismissed but they matter to the Conservatives – not just domestically but because domestic politics and diplomacy are now inextricably intertwined.

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‘Are Tory activists weeding out “moderate” MPs?’, Political Studies Association Blog, 6 March, 2014 (with Paul Webb)

When two Conservative MPs were deselected in rapid succession by their local constituency associations, it marked to some a welcome assertion of grassroots rights and power.  To others, it was no such thing.  Instead the move was an inevitable consequence of what happens when a party’s membership drops so low that the only people left at local level are the zealots –  the ultra-Thatcherite ‘Tory boys’ (and girls!), the ‘blue-rinse dragons’, the ‘Colonel Blimps’,  the ‘mad swivel-eyed loons’.  As a result no independently-minded, moderate MP could sleep safe in his or her seat any longer.

In fact, when one looks back over the last hundred years, it soon becomes obvious that we’re not witnessing anything particularly unprecedented.  There has always been potential for friction between local associations and their man or woman at Westminster – sometimes for  ideological or policy reasons, though more often than not because the MP in question has somehow brought the party into disrepute or isn’t seen to be pulling his or her weight.

That said, those who argue that the potential for such friction has grown as parties shrink may have a point – or at least one worth our consideration.  After all, that argument accords not just with common wisdom but with one of the most pervasive (though not necessarily accurate) assumptions held by political scientists interested in parties.  After all, May’s Law of Curvilinear Disparity (apologies for the jargon) holds that a party’s activists are inevitably more radical (and some would say less realistic) than either its voters or its MPs and leaders.

So what does the evidence say?  For starters, it’s undoubtedly true that Tory Party membership has shrunk, not just from its high point in the early 1950s but also in the last twenty years.  It was around 400,000 in 1994, when the first academic survey of the Party was published.  By 2010, around the time of another survey – this one conducted for a book on the Party’s attitudes to women – it had dropped to 177,000.  By 2013 (the year in which we conducted our survey of the Tory grassroots), CCHQ, after being dragged kicking and screaming into releasing the figure by a concerted campaign by website Conservative Home, claimed that the figure now stood at 134,000– which, given the rate of decline in recent years, seems a little high, although we will perhaps be able to gauge its accuracy if the Party holds a leadership contest in the event that it fails to hang on to Number Ten after the next election.

But what about grassroots attitudes?  Is it really the case that, as the tide has gone out on membership, the only people left on the beach are a bunch of Eurosceptic, misogynistic, homophobic, climate-change deniers?  And has the rank and file actually changed that much ideologically over the last two decades?

There is no doubt that the current membership of the Conservative Party is fiercely Eurosceptic –so much so that rather too many of them for Mr Cameron’s comfort are tempted by UKIP.  True, a majority of them could probably be persuaded to vote to stay in the EU if the Prime Minister could make a convincing claim to have renegotiated this country’s relationship with Brussels.  But they would take a lot more persuading to select anyone remotely resembling a Europhile as a candidate and, if they are currently represented in Parliament, would really rather their current MP, if he or she shared such heretical views, didn’t voice them too loudly. 

On the environment, they can hardly be described as thoroughgoing friends of the earth.  We found that just over half of them opposed their own government’s setting up of a Green investment bank to fund solar power and wind farm projects – twice the proportion that supported the idea.  Meanwhile nine out of ten of them approved of its scrapping the rises in fuel duty intended to curb carbon emissions.  Whether or not Tim Yeo was right to point to his environmental campaigning as one of the factors that did for him, then, who can say?  But it probably didn’t do him any favours.

As for homophobia, it is hard to believe in the light of the fact that one of the key figures in Yeo’s deselection was looking forward to his gay son’s own same-sex marriage, that the issue had a much of a bearing on his motives.  However, it may just have played a part in the thinking of other people involved in this and other deselections.  We found, for instance, only one in four members supporting the introduction of gay marriage but six out of ten opposing it (four of them strongly).  Meanwhile, only one in ten wanted to see more gay and lesbian MPs representing the Tories in parliament, while getting on for a third wanted to see fewer of them.

However, when it comes to attitudes to female MPs– one of the issues that supposedly (but only supposedly) played a part in Anne McIntosh’s deselection – the stereotype simply doesn’t stand up, not if our respondents actually mean what they say (and given their disdain for political correctness it is unlikely they lied to us on this one). True, a quarter of members say they are happy with a situation which sees women make up just 16 per cent of the Conservative Party in the Commons.  But the number wanting to see fewer women is minuscule, while just over half of all members would actually like to see more.  That represents a drop on the proportion saying the same in 2009, but that in itself is possibly a response to the number of female MPs rising considerably after the general election.  And the tiny proportion of members saying they’d like to see fewer MPs has reduced by two-thirds between now and then.

And what about where they stand on the left-right spectrum?  How has that changed over the last twenty years?  Not as much as one might think, is the answer. When we asked them in 2013 to place themselves on a left-right spectrum running from zero to ten (with 0 representing far left and 10 far right), the average Tory member placed him or herself at 8.4 – exactly the same place as in 2009 and only a whisker away from where the average member placed him or herself (ie at 8.2) in 1992.

Of course, it could be that those who are most active in the party – the people who attend its local fundraisers, who canvass at elections, stand as councillors, or go to association committee meetings – are also the most radical. This would matter because they are precisely the kind of people behind the attempts (not all of them successful) to get rid of sitting MPs.

We found that only three per cent of all Tory members could be described as hard-core activists in the sense that they put in more than 10 hours a week on behalf of the party – a proportion that only increases to seven per cent if we expand the definition to include those who put in over five hours, although it is actually higher than the one researchers uncovered in the early 1990s.   It is certainly the case that this hard core is more likely to take a dim view of the coalition and feel less respected by the leadership than their inactive counterparts. But are they markedly more right wing?  The answer is no: those giving more than 5 hours a week of their time to the party have an identical mean score to those giving less than 5 hours on the left-right scale (8.4). It makes little difference if we substitute composite attitudinal scales constructed from responses to various questions designed to tap the nuances of left-right positioning, and neither does it change much if we define ‘core activists’ as only those doing more than 10 hours or 20 hours per week; the activists are not significantly more right-wing.

It may, then, be tempting to think that, as the Conservative Party’s membership shrinks, it will necessarily become a more hostile environment for sitting MPs who don’t share the views of an inevitably more right-wing rank-and-file.  But it may well be mistaken, too.  Moderate MPs who work hard – not just in the House but at maintaining friendly relations with the folks back home – can probably sleep fairly soundly.  The Tory Party may no longer be a particularly broad church but maybe it hasn’t become a sect just yet.

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