‘Normal people don’t join political parties’, CityAM, 5 January 2018.

Am I normal? Are you? Is any of us?

And what is “normal” anyway? To be honest, I haven’t a clue. But I do know what is not normal, and that’s being a member of a political party.

It’s something that fewer than two out of every 100 adults entitled to vote in the UK choose to do.

Moreover, those who take their politics seriously enough to join a party are abnormal – or at least unrepresentative – in other ways too.

Queen Mary University of London’s Mile End Institute has just published a short study called Grassroots, based on surveys conducted by YouGov for the ESRC-funded Party Members Project just after last year’s General Election.

Covering rank and file members of the Conservatives, Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP, it provides a comprehensive portrait of who they are, what they think, and what they do.

The findings suggest that those parties have a fair bit to do – especially if they want to look (and perhaps even think) more like the people they aim to govern.

That’s especially true of the Conservatives. Tory grassroots members tend to hold slightly more radical views than those who simply vote for their party, although that’s also true of their counterparts in the other parties.

But they also hold views on some social and moral issues that, as the electorate grows more liberal over time, may leave them – and their party – looking distinctly behind the curve.

Those attitudes are, at least in part, a function of age. The average age of the Conservative party member may not be anywhere near the figure of 72 that one hears regularly bandied about in the media. But the fact that it’s actually around 57 nevertheless obscures two important facts.

The first is that getting on for half of all Tory members are over 65 – a much bigger proportion than is the case for the other parties, and something that may already be impacting on the party’s ability to campaign on the ground and, in particular, online.

The second is that the other parties don’t have that much to write home about on this score either. Their members may not be quite as old, but the average Labour, Lib Dem and SNP members would still appear to be in his early fifties.

And, yes, you did read that right – his. All four parties have a majority male membership, although Labour’s grassroots (47 per cent of whom are female) are not that far off gender parity – in marked contrast to the Tories, seven out of 10 of whom are men.

As for achieving ethnic representation – forget about it. BAME groups now make up around 13 per cent of the population, but 97 per cent of party members are white British.

When it comes to class, the vast majority of them (three quarters of Labour and SNP members, and nearly nine out of 10 Conservatives and Lib Dems) are in occupational categories ABC1 – compared to only just over half of the population.

All this would be easy to ignore if party members had no influence on rest of us. But they do: they choose their party’s leaders and its MPs and, directly or indirectly, they also influence its policies.

Without them, Jeremy Corbyn would still be a backbench non-entity and Brexit just a bad dream. What a thought.


Originally published at http://www.cityam.com/278243/normal-people-dont-join-political-parties


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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