‘Only 15 per cent of Conservative party members would vote to leave the EU’ (with Paul Webb) Telegraph, 15 June 2015

Europe is already impinging, if only indirectly on Labour’s leadership contest. Andy Burnham in particular has suggested the party needs to be careful it doesn’t ‘do a Scotland’ by associating itself so closely with an all-party campaign that it ruins whatever’s left of its reputation with voters who want to leave the EU.

Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, however, has rather less to worry about than her Government when it comes to the immediate party management problems thrown up by an issue that is likely to hog the headlines between now and whenever the Prime Minister judges it best to hold his in-out referendum.

Last week’s row over whether Tory frontbenchers should be expected to toe the government line during the official campaign was a swift reminder to David Cameron that the political capital he won as a result of his unexpected general election victory is a rapidly wasting asset, at least at Westminster. The fact that fifty of his MPs have already moved to set up Conservatives for Britain only reinforces the message that the next year or so could be a very rough ride indeed.

But the Conservative Party isn’t simply composed of those who sit behind Cameron on the green benches at Westminster. It is also, for all the talk of dwindling and ageing membership, a grassroots organisation – one that will have its own take on whether the UK should stay or leave the EU.

The conventional wisdom – very handy if you’re a Eurosceptic Tory MP – is that Conservative Party members out there in the constituencies can’t wait to cast their no votes. Indeed, one of the reasons that the better-off-outers grab so much of the media’s and the PM’s attention is that they’re often assumed to be more representative than he is of what a Tory Andy Burnham would surely refer to as the party’s ‘beating heart.’

Turns out, however, that that’s not the case, at least if a brand new survey of more than five thousand British party members – including twelve hundred grassroots Tories – is anything to go by.

As part of a study into demographics, motivations, opinions and activities of ordinary members funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, some of the fieldwork for which is being conducted by YouGov, we asked whether them a question on the referendum. Their answers throw up a number of interesting points. But two stand out in particular.


First, as we can see from the graph above, Labour’s grassroots members seem to be overwhelmingly in favour of the UK remaining in the EU. On the one hand, this is a surely a good thing in party management terms in that exactly the same can be said of the PLP, whose sceptics – particularly of the “hard” rather than the “soft” variety – can be counted on the fingers of one or two hands. On the other hand, it suggests that the party as a whole is considerably less ambivalent about Europe than many of those people who vote for it – let alone those that it desperately needs switch sides if it is to stand any chance of making up ground on the Tories between now and the next general election.

Given this, and the fact that Labour suffered far more seriously than it had hoped at the hands of UKIP this time around, it needs to be very careful that it doesn’t allow too big a gap to open up between its positive stance and the Euroscepticism of those whose votes it will be seeking in 2020. Just because Andy Burnham – supposedly the left-of-centre continuity candidate – is the contender who happens to be making that argument most strongly, doesn’t mean that by definition it’s a silly one.

chart (1)

But perhaps the most interesting finding is summarised in this second graph, which should challenge the idea that the better-off-outers on the Tory benches in the Commons are merely the visible tip of a much bigger iceberg that could sink David Cameron’s dream of uniting his party around a renegotiation package he could sell to the wider electorate.

In fact, fewer than two out of ten of ordinary Conservative party members would vote for the UK to leave the EU regardless of whatever reforms Prime Minister David Cameron manages to obtain in the run-up to a referendum. In marked contrast, nearly two-thirds of them say that their vote depends on the outcome of negotiations, while one in five say they would vote to stay in the EU no matter what.

True, Cameron’s got some work to do in order to convince the majority who can still be convinced. And further number crunching reveals that the more active a Conservative party member is, the more likely he or she is to support getting out come what may. But that has to be qualified by the fact that very, very few grassroots Tories actually do much for their party other than help fund it, especially outside of election campaigns.

The main point, then, still holds. David Cameron – perhaps because his standing in the Conservative Party in the country is almost certainly higher than it is in the Commons, where ideological obsession and/or perceived personal sleights all-too-often trump political gratitude – shouldn’t be too spooked by his sceptics. They’re not going away. But it looks like they’re nowhere near as typical of the average Tory as we, and they, like to think.


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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