‘The true picture of Labour members and supporters and their election campaigning’ (with Paul Webb and Monica Poletti), Labour List, 16 April 2017

At elections, a good ground game may not be everything but it still means something. In a tight race, it may even mean the difference between a party winning and losing.  But, if “boots on the ground” are at least potentially important, who is it who wears them and why? And what exactly do they do once they’ve put them on?

The answer to the first question has traditionally been obvious: grassroots members of political parties. The answer to the second no less so: delivering leaflets, putting up posters, holding meetings, canvassing voters, and perhaps even standing for election.

But what if all this no longer holds? After all, until very recently anyway, the number of people joining political parties was falling as fast in the UK as it’s been falling all over Europe.  We’ve also seen the rise of new communication technologies and social media. As a result, both who campaigns and what they do when they’re campaigning may well have changed – something that’s worth considering as Labour embarks on its campaign for the local elections in May.

Drawing on survey data collected for our ESRC-funded party members project a week or two after the 2015 general election, we have been able to investigate the differences and similarities in campaign activity at that election between, on the one hand, Labour members and, on the other, people who strongly identified with the party but who hadn’t actually joined it – people we will call Labour-supporting non-members.

First off, we looked to see if there were demographic differences – and, as you can see from Table 1, there certainly were. Paid-up Labour members in 2015 weren’t on average any older than Labour-supporting non-members, but they were much more likely to be men, to be graduates and to be middle class. They were also likely to think of themselves as slightly more left-wing.

Interestingly, taking members and supporters of all six parties we surveyed (Labour, the Conservatives, the Lib Dems, the Greens, UKIP and the SNP), more advanced number-crunching suggests that, in common with being socially liberal and/or living in a marginal seat, being a woman was associated with doing more for your party at election time. We’re not quite sure why, but suggestions are always welcome!

Table 1: 2015 Labour members and Labour supporting non-members: demographics and ideology

Members Lab-supporting non-members
Average Age 51 52
Male/Female split 62/38 50/50
Percentage of graduates 56 30
Percentage in ABC1 group 70 52
Mean left (0) – right (10) placement 2.4 3.0


When we looked in detail at what people actually do – or at least what they claim to have done – during the election campaign, we found that the old favourites – like putting up a party poster in your window – haven’t yet died a death, even though people are also campaigning online as well as offline, see table 2. We also find that party members are still far more likely to campaign (or at least claim to have campaigned) for their parties than are non-member supporters. Moreover, this is especially true – even discounting for over-claiming – when it comes to more intensive forms of activity – things like leafleting.

Table 2: Labour members and Labour-supporting non-members: reported campaign activity at the 2015 general election

Members Lab-supporting non-members
% %
Liked something on FB 51 19
(Re)tweeted something on twitter 37 8
Displayed an election poster 51 11
Delivered Leaflets 43 3
Attended public meeting 31 5
Canvassed in person or by phone 36 2


That said, it is vital to bear in mind that, barring a complete electoral meltdown, there will always be many more people out there in the electorate who aren’t members but who strongly support Labour than there will be members. As a result, the sum total of campaign activity they undertake is almost bound to be as great, if not greater, that of party members.  Indeed, by using data from the British Election Study to gauge (a) the number of strong Labour identifiers out there in the electorate and creating (b) an “activism index”, a measure of how many of the various campaign activities on offer that each person undertook, we can by subtracting any Labour members from (a) so as to avoid double-counting and then multiplying (a) by (b)  so as to estimate their relative contributions in 2015, see table 3.

Table 3: Estimating the relative campaign contribution of party members and Labour-supporting non-members at the 2015 general election

Members Labour-supporting non-members
Estimated numbers nationally 188,000 3,883, 464
Activism index 2.56 0.48
Mean number of campaign activities (weighted by size of group) 481,280 1,864,063


As is obvious from the table, Labour, which has made much in the last year or so of its growing membership, should recognise, as should other parties, that its strong supporters out there in the electorate are a significant organisational and human resource. It might also be worth the party noting that they are almost certainly more representative of Labour voters – and indeed voters as a whole – than its paid-up members.

On the other hand, those members remain absolutely vital for campaigning. For one thing, they are clearly much more ready to undertake the hardest tasks, or at least they were back in May 2015. For another, they may well be important as facilitators and motivators of the efforts of those voters who support Labour and may be willing to help it out at election time but who haven’t gone so far as to actually join the party.

Finally, though, a word of caution. Our surveys suggest that, put together, Labour members and supporters did – or at least claimed to have done – significantly more work for their party than their Tory counterparts in 2015.  Yet the Tories beat Labour hands-down. In short, members and supporters matter; but they can’t make up for a message – or a leader – that voters simply don’t warm to.

Originally published at: http://labourlist.org/2017/04/tim-bale-twenty-first-century-campaigning-just-what-did-labours-members-and-its-supporters-do-for-the-party-at-the-2015-general-election/

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‘A Conservative secret weapon at the last election – the non-members who worked for victory’, ConservativeHome, 2 May 2017

With local elections only a few weeks away, the Conservatives, like the nation’s other political parties, will be relying on their activists to do the on-the-ground campaigning that can occasionally make a difference between winning a seat or even a council.  Those of us who aren’t directly involved tend to think that all those activists must be fully-paid up members.  But we should think again.

Research – and we’re pretty sure the experience of many ConservativeHome veterans, too – suggests that at least some of those proverbial ‘boots on the ground’ are worn by people who don’t actually join their favourite party, but still want to help it win. Drawing on surveys conducted for our ESRC-funded party members project in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 general election, my colleagues Paul Webb, Monica Poletti, and I have been looking at differences in campaign activity at that election between, on the one hand, Conservative Party members and, on the other, people who strongly identified with the party but who hadn’t gone so far as to join it – people we’ll call Tory-supporting non-members.

You can find our detailed findings here, but they are easy to summarise. Demographically and ideologically, the two groups – members and strong supporters – are in some ways like each other, and in some ways not. The average age of members in our YouGov surveys was 54, of strong supporters 57. Some 75 per cent of members and 69 per cent of supporters could be labelled ABC1s.  And both were similarly, well, conservative: on a scale running from zero (very left-wing) to ten (very right-wing), members placed themselves at 7.8 and strong supporters placed themselves at 7.5.

Tory members, though, were more likely than Tory-supporting non-members to be graduates (the percentages were 38 and 25 respectively) but there was a much better gender balance among supporters: 48 per cent of the latter were women compared to only 29 per cent  of members.

When it comes to campaigning, though, there were big differences – at least at first glance. Online, some 40 per cent of Conservative members had liked something by their party or by one of its candidates on Facebook, compared to just 10 per cent of Tory-supporting non-members.  The difference on Twitter (we asked about tweets and retweets) was even more striking – 26 per cent vs three per cent.

Offline, it was the same story. Members were ten times more likely (30 per cent vs three per cent) to have displayed an election poster in their window.  And they were twenty times as likely to have delivered (to claim they had delivered!) leaflets (44 per cent vs two per cent), with a not dissimilar difference when it came to the even more demanding task of phone or face-to-face canvassing (37 per cent vs two per cent).

So far, then, so predictable.  Members are by definition more committed to their party than non-members, even those who see themselves as strong supporters. It’s hardly surprising, then, to see them doing more for it when election time rolls around.

But here’s the thing: it’s vital to remember – especially perhaps when we’re thinking about the Conservative Party – that there are far more people out there who don’t join the party but strongly support it than there are members.
By our reckoning, in 2015, when the party had around 150,000 members, there were probably just over three million voters who leaned very strongly toward the Tories.  So even if each of them who did anything at all for the party during the campaign did far less than paid up members, the sum of their individual efforts was at least as great and probably greater – at least when it came to ‘low intensity’ activities.  As a result, the contribution to campaigning that non-members can make shouldn’t be sniffed at, especially when the Conservative Party seems to be finding it harder than some of its rivals to recruit.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Tories don’t need to worry about falling too far behind Labour or being overtaken by the Liberal Democrats when it comes to membership.  For one thing, it’s often paid-up members (and some who haven’t paid-up!) who mobilise non-members into doing stuff for their party at election.  For another, as we’ve seen, its members who are much more willing to do the traditional, harder, voter-facing tasks like leafletting and canvassing: tasks that any campaign on the ground worth its salt still needs doing in order to make what can sometimes be a crucial difference on the day.

Originally published at: http://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2017/04/tim-bale-a-conservative-secret-weapon-at-the-last-election-the-non-members-who-worked-for-victory.html

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‘Fighting force?  What Lib Dem members and supporters did for the party in #GE2015’ (with Monica Poletti and Paul Webb), Liberal Democrat Newswire, 2 April 2017

The Lib Dems have quite a reputation as election campaigners, renowned and resented in equal measure for their Focus leaflets, their ‘Can’t win here’ bar-charts and their ubiquitous dayglo diamonds. Indeed one of the reasons why, at least before the 2015 meltdown, the party often managed to win more seats than one might have predicted from its overall vote share was its ability to mobilise its members and supporters more than some of its competitors ever could.

It’s worth homing in on that phrase ‘members and supporters’ for a moment because recent research conducted for our party members project suggests that election campaigning is very much a matter of the latter as well as the former.

Using surveys conducted a week or two after the 2015 general election, we’re able to explore what Lib Dem members and Lib Dem-supporting non-members did for their party during the campaign. The details – and those for five other parties – can be found here. But here are a few take-homes.

First – and perhaps not surprisingly given how demoralised some Lib Dems probably felt during the coalition – we found that Lib Dem members were on average a little more active in the campaign than Tory and Ukip members, but a little less active than their Labour, Green and SNP counterparts.

Second, and in spite of this, Lib Dem members, although they couldn’t compete in the online stakes (on Facebook and Twitter) with Labour and especially Green and SNP members, did come top when it came to – yes, you’ve guessed it – leafleting even if they weren’t as keen as putting posters in their windows as we thought they might be!

Third, Lib Dem members are less demographically representative than the people out there in the electorate who told YouGov (who fielded our surveys for us) that they really like the Lib Dems. Or at least that was the case in May 2015 when we conducted our research.

Although their average age was about the same (just over 50), Lib Dem members were much more likely to be male (69% of them were men) than were Lib-Dem supporting non-members (57% of whom were women). They were also rather more middle class, with 76% being classed as ABC1 compared to 68% of strong supporters, and to be graduates (56% vs 45%). Members also thought of themselves as slightly more to the left-of-centre, but not by much.

Finally, we found that (as was the case in all parties) on an individual level, Lib Dem members do far more for their party at election time than do strong supporters, especially when it comes to the hard stuff like leafleting and canvassing. But – and it’s a big but – many of those supporters do get involved when it matters. And since there are so many more people out there who aren’t members but who strongly support the Lib Dems than there are members, then the sum total of campaign activity they undertake is at least as great, if not greater, that of party members.

Members, then, are vital, which is why the increase in Lib Dem membership is so encouraging. But that’s not just because they are the doughtiest election campaigners. It’s also because they may well play a part in persuading those who don’t want to go as far as joining formally that they can still help the party anyway.

Originally published at: http://us2.campaign-archive2.com/?u=4761a1f83089fd89eba4fef19&id=a41b6db4b7&e=[UNIQID]

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‘The Conservatives who threatened to vote UKIP. All mouth and no trousers.’, ConservativeHome, 19 March 2017

So much has happened in politics since the summer that it takes a bit of effort to remember a time when Theresa May wasn’t the Conservative leader and Brexit wasn’t all we ever talked about. But cast your mind back, if you will, to the summer of 2013 – a time before the EU vote and even the Scottish independence referendum.

One David Cameron was Prime Minister, and his party chairman was his university chum and long-time tennis partner, Andrew Feldman.  The Conservatives were in coalition, Labour wasn’t quite the shambles it has since become, UKIP was a real worry, and gay marriage was upsetting an awful lot of Conservative activists.

No surprise, then, that when someone very close to the Prime Minister apparently referred to the Tory grassroots as ‘mad swivel-eyed loons’ that the media made the most of it.  And no surprise, either, that many members took umbrage.  True, surveyed just afterwards, a little over half of them said that the words weren’t an accurate reflection of how those closest to Cameron viewed the membership.  But that left a third who thought that they were.

The same survey picked up something even more worrying: even in the wake of Cameron’s Bloomberg speech promising an in-out referendum, over a quarter of Conservative members were seriously considering voting for UKIP.  More precisely 29 per cent of those grassroots Tories surveyed scored UKIP between 7 and 10 on what a standard ten-point ‘propensity to vote’ (PTV) scale running from zero (never) to ten (very likely).

Still, we all say things we don’t mean when we’re upset – and this was a couple of years away from the general election.  When that election eventually took place in 2015, how many Party members actually did the undoable as opposed to simply thinking the unthinkable?  Did those who confessed they were tempted by Nigel Farage’s charms really rush into his arms?

One of the advantages of commissioning YouGov to conduct a survey of party members in the summer of 2013 was that we’re able say how they actually voted (or at least recalled voting) when the election took place.

The first thing to note is that some 99 per cent of the individuals who comprised our sample of Conservative Party members in June 2013 turned out to vote in 2015 – a much higher rate (as we would of course expect, given their interest in politics) than in the population as a whole.

Second, in what has to be good news for the party, when it came to the crunch, Tory grassroots members proved overwhelmingly loyal in 2015, with 93 per cent voting for Tory candidates and only five per cent overall of them plumping instead for the ‘People’s Army’.

That said, that means 7,000 Conservative Party members may well have voted for UKIP.  Moreover, those who were most likely in 2013 to indicate that they might do so were indeed most likely to actually vote for it in 2015. Less than two per cent of those who scored 0−6 on the ‘likelihood to vote UKIP’ scale in 2013, actually voted UKIP in 2015. But of those who scored 7−10, some 16 per cent did so.

Of course, that means there was an awful lot of talk and no action (or as my colleagues Paul Webb, Monica Poletti and I we put it in our free-to-read academic article, all mouth and no trousers) going on: less that one in five of the nearly one in three who were seriously tempted by UKIP actually followed through.  Still, there were enough of them to allow us to analyse what may have motivated those who did go all the way with Farage.

That analysis reveals that the five per cent of Tory members who voted for UKIP did so primarily because they felt seriously under-valued by the leadership, and because they felt their ideological differences with Cameron were too great.  Not only were they more socially conservative than him, they were also less likely to approve of the austerity imposed on the country by his next door neighbour, George Osborne: like UKIP voters more generally, they were not notably keen on what some would call neo-liberal policies.

The take-home, then, is as follows. Tory grassroots members are much more likely to turn out to vote than non-members but, whatever many of them say they might do between elections, they are overwhelmingly likely to vote for their party in the end.

Whether their hints that they might not do so reflect genuine indecision, temporary dissatisfaction, a desire to signal to the party’s leadership that something has to change, or a mix of all three motives, remains a moot point. Yet even if their concerns don’t ultimately lead to them vote for someone else, they shouldn’t simply be dismissed as having no consequences.

Just because Conservative members tempted by UKIP turn out (and turn out to vote Conservative) doesn’t necessarily mean they will turn up to campaign for the party in the marginals that matter.  Theresa May’s fairly transparent attempt to airbrush Cameron out of Tory history and to colonise some of Farage’s territory might, therefore, be a very smart move indeed.

Originally published at: http://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2017/03/tim-bale-the-conservatives-who-threatened-to-vote-ukip-all-mouth-and-no-trousers.html

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‘Out of touch and under threat’, Sunday People, 26 February, 2017.

LABOUR was founded to represent the interests of working people. But it was a lot simpler when those people had a lot in common with each other and many MPs came from ordinary backgrounds.

As the service sector overtook manufacturing, the welfare state grew, home ownership and the consumer society expanded, more women entered the labour market, the middle class grew and the traditional working class shrank in size, the party had to appeal to a broader mass of voters.

At the same time, Labour’s ranks at Westminster were filled by middle-class graduates, many with more liberal attitudes on issues like immigration and law than the working-class MPs they replaced. Over time, Labour’s traditional core vote saw a party that no longer looked and sounded like them and which seemed more interested in political correctness than fighting to give them a bigger share of the nation’s wealth.

This triggered a vicious circle – as working-class voters drifted away, the party drifted further from them.

Reversing that process will take a miracle – and certainly a very different leader from Jeremy Corbyn.

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‘Should Ukip just dissolve itself?’, CityAM, 1 March, 2017.

The phrase “existential threat” is bandied around a lot these days, but in Ukip’s case it is an accurate description of the danger it faces.

With a Conservative Prime Minister not only determined to ensure that the UK leaves the EU but also bent on reducing immigration, people are bound to wonder whether leader Paul Nuttall and Co should bother keeping the show on the road.

But there are at least a couple of reasons not to call it a day. For one thing, for those who want out of the EU and a big fall in immigration, Ukip’s continued presence ensures that Theresa May’s feet are held to the fire.

For another, there are a whole bunch of voters who simply don’t feel represented by either of the two main parties: to them, the Tories are still too keen on shrinking the state while Labour is too politically correct. Ukip won the support of nearly 4m voters in 2015 – and polls don’t suggest they’ve given up on it yet.

Originally published at http://www.cityam.com/260022/should-ukip-just-dissolve-itself


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‘Truth to tell: populism and the immigration debate’, LSE Politics and Policy, 1 March 2017.

We are living in a world where it’s no longer ‘the economy, stupid’. That’s not to say real wages, the cost of living, and tax-and-spend don’t matter to people anymore. Clearly, they still do. But they no longer trump nearly everything else when voters make up their minds. Politics has always been multidimensional, of course. It’s that analysts of voting behaviour and public opinion used to be able to conveniently collapse most of these dimensions into the left-right spectrum. Nowadays, that’s becoming harder and harder to do.

In the United Kingdom, as in many European countries, that familiar horizontal axis is now being intersected by another, vertical one. Call it what you will – GAL-TAN (Green, Alternative, Libertarian – Tradition, Authoritarian, Nationalist), demarcation-integration, communitarian-cosmopolitan or simply open-closed – this dimension suddenly seems to matter much more than it used to. Certainly, it helps explain why 52 per cent of those voting in last year’s European Union referendum plumped for Leave rather than Remain. It also gives us an insight into why nearly four million Brits chose the populist radical right UK Independence Party (UKIP) at the 2015 general election, despite the fact the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system meant most of them were ‘wasting’ their votes on candidates without a cat’s chance in hell of winning.

Just as political scientists had begun to take it for granted we had moved from an era of ‘position politics’ (the clash of big ideas between two tribes) to an era of ‘valence politics’ (where competence and credibility counts most), culture and identity came back with a bang, made all the more explosive by a pervasive feeling – especially among voters dispossessed and disoriented by the dizzying pace of social and economic change – of ‘disconnect’ with mainstream politicians.

Migration, and the multiculturalism that inevitably comes with it, is not the only contentious issue in all this. But it is, as opinion polls and media coverage attest, by far the biggest.

The UK has experienced waves of immigration before, most notably in the 1950s, 60s and 70s when Afro-Caribbean and South Asian citizens of its former colonies journeyed to the mother country to fill labour shortages created by the post-war boom. But it had never previously experienced the sheer volume and intensity of the wave of migrants that arrived after Tony Blair’s Labour government decided not to restrict the rights of EU citizens to live and work in the UK.

The arrival of millions of foreigners from Central and Eastern Europe was bound to spell trouble. After all, the post-war, postcolonial wave of immigrants was not absorbed without considerable political conflict. Those who thought similar problems could be avoided simply because the people pouring in after 2004 were white rather than black or Asian were forgetting xenophobia can be just as powerful as racism. They were also far too complacent about the willingness and the ability of the UK’s political class to engage honestly and responsibly with its citizens.

On the centre-left, Labour politicians failed to fess up to massively underestimating the number of Eastern Europeans who would flock to take up job opportunities provided by a booming economy. And given that migrants benefited that economy, they decided not to do anything practical to address it. This inaction was clearly at odds with the government’s rhetorical response, which culminated in then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown promising ‘British jobs for British workers’, either revealing himself to be a hypocrite, or creating expectations he couldn’t possibly fulfil.

The centre-right, however, proved just as unable of treating the public like grown-ups. Casting around for anything that might put it on side with voters, it tried just about every trick in the populist playbook: then-leader of the Conservative Party William Hague claimed the people had been betrayed by a ‘liberal elite’ wilfully deaf to their concerns about ‘bogus asylum-seekers’ and the threat the single currency and the EU posed to sovereignty. If nothing was done, he claimed, Britain would soon become ‘a foreign land’.

Hague’s successors, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, did more of the same, with the latter commissioning the infamous It’s not racist to talk about immigration. Are you thinking what we’re thinking? billboard posters in the run-up to the 2005 general election. For a while, David Cameron turned down the volume on migration and the EU, but it wasn’t long before he was bashing ‘Brussels’ and helping push through increasingly draconian measures designed to fulfil a pledge – possibly one of the craziest on record – to reduce net migration into the country ‘from the hundreds to the tens of thousands’.

If all this was designed to shoot the fox belonging to UKIP – a Eurosceptic, anti-immigration party led by consummate populist Nigel Farage – it proved completely counterproductive. By talking up clashes with the EU and the need to get a grip on immigration, the Tories (aided and abetted by their friends in Britain’s notoriously partisan media) both turbocharged UKIP’s signature issues and normalised ‘us vs them’. The genie was out of the bottle, released not by the extreme but by the mainstream.

And so it was that, driven by a fatal combination of panic and complacency, Cameron called the EU referendum. And so it was that he lost it, with defiant, nativist nationalism overcoming the latent fear of economic consequences.

Cowed by the evidence that hostility to immigration played a huge part in Leave’s win, and by the equally irrefutable logic that access to the EU’s single market and the customs union are irreconcilable with permanent limitations on the free movement of its citizens, Cameron’s successor as PM, Theresa May, seems to be preparing the country for the hardest of Brexits.

The irony – as bitter as it is delicious – is that Brexit, however hard, will not see the UK ‘take back control’ of its borders, let alone fulfil May’s aspiration to reduce annual net migration to the tens of thousands. Unless, that is, the government is prepared to crash the economy as well as crash out of the EU. Without the counterbalance of immigrants, the UK’s ageing population will lead to an unsustainable dependency ratio. More pressingly, the country’s health, construction, and social care systems will begin visibly to collapse without continuing inward migration. So will much of its fruit and vegetable sector, unless farmers are suddenly prepared to pay premium wages to persuade Brits who think such work is beneath them to consider returning to the fields.

Employers across a range of businesses have made this crystal clear to May, and she and her colleagues have admitted that freer movement will probably need to be part and parcel of any post-Brexit free trade deals they manage to strike with non-European countries.

The contradictions of this are as obvious as they are ridiculous. If the referendum was won in part because of the lie that tens of millions of Turks were about to descend on Britain unless it left the EU, then it is hard to see how Brits are going to welcome a deal with Ankara that will mean exactly that. Similarly, while they might cope with a few thousand New Zealanders making their way to London, they are bound to baulk at vast numbers of Indians and Chinese.

Quite how those contradictions can possibly be resolved is difficult to see. Indeed, there is no sign whatsoever that Conservative politicians will eventually level with the public on the immigration issue. And if they don’t, their Labour counterparts won’t dare to either. All of which means the continuation of the glaring gap between rhetoric and reality that has provided politicians, whether mainstream or more extreme, with the opportunity to appeal in predictably populist fashion to voters who sense they’re not being told the whole truth. Whether, of course, they are capable of handling that truth, should they ever be presented with it, is another matter entirely.

Originally published at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/truth-to-tell-brexit-will-not-reduce-migration & http://www.democraticaudit.com/2017/02/27/politicians-havent-been-honest-with-the-public-about-immigration-they-still-arent/ & http://www.newsroom.co.nz/2017/02/23/brexit-britain/

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