So what do the « swivel-eyed loons » really think ? The Tory grassroots and their views on the coalition
This article presents the results of a 2013 survey of Conservative Party members. The key question was : « Had you known in May 2010 what you know now about how the Coalition has worked and what it has achieved, which of the following options would you have supported : the coalition with the Lib Dems, a minority Conservative government, or an immediate second general election ? ». The answers point not just to mild disaffection but to far-reaching disappointment and discontent with the coalition at the Tory grassroots. They revealed that, while the Tory grassroots don’t like coalition overall, some are keener than others. And that differing attitudes to coalition don’t have very much to do with demographics, media consumption, length of service or levels of activism. However there is a rational connection between views on coalition and views on particular policies. Eventually what really counts seems to be ideology and a sense that the leadership has little or no respect for the membership.Haut de page
Keywords :Conservative party, Tory grassroots, coalition government, Liberal-Democrats, David Cameron
1 Political Scientists know relatively little about party members – and even less about their views on the coalitions that their leaders take them into. We therefore decided to do something to begin to shine a light on this question. Between 31 May and 11 June 2013 with the help of web-based pollsters You Gov and the McDougall Trust, we surveyed 852 Conservative Party members – a figure is sufficient for a 95 per cent confidence level and a 4 per cent confidence interval.
2 Our key question was « Had you known in May 2010 what you know now about how the Coalition has worked and what it has achieved, which of the following options would you have supported : the coalition with the Lib Dems, a minority Conservative government, or an immediate second general election ? » The answer we got was definitive. An overwhelming majority of rank-and-file Conservatives wish David Cameron had never taken them into coalition with the Lib Dems back in May 2010. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll stop him doing exactly the same thing after the next election – not if that’s what it takes to keep a Tory Prime Minister in No 10.
3 Naturally, we asked many other questions too, and the answers we got back point not just to mild disaffection but to far-reaching disappointment and discontent with the coalition at the Tory grassroots. Among other things, those answers revealed that, while the Tory grassroots don’t like coalition overall, some are keener than others. They also show that differing attitudes to coalition don’t have very much to do with demographics or media consumption – or with length of service or (with one interesting exception) levels of activism. We found that there is a reassuringly rational connection between views on coalition and views on particular policies, with those policies emanating from the Lib Dems and those departing from ‘common sense Conservatism’ being least popular among those who are least enthusiastic about the coalition. What really counts, though, seems to be ideology – in particular a sense of David Cameron (as well as the Lib Dems) being some way to one’s left – and a sense that the leadership has little or no respect for the membership.
4 In hindsight, more grassroots Conservatives would have preferred a minority Tory government (41 %) to a coalition with the Liberal Democrats (33 %). Indeed, given that a further 24 % of ordinary Tory members would rather have seen an immediate second general election called in May 2010, we can say that two-thirds of ordinary Tory members, knowing what they know now about how things have worked out, would have preferred David Cameron not to have done the deal he did.
5Inevitably perhaps, we also find a significant association between being more or less impressed with the government’s record to date and being more or less comfortable with the decision to go into coalition in the first place. Those who are most comfortable with that decision are more inclined to look back and think the government has done a good job, scoring its record at 8.60 when those who would have preferred to see a minority Conservative government or an immediate second general election score the coalition’s record at 7.63 and 7.09 respectively.
6The Conservative Party membership would appear to be made up of more men than women, late-middle aged if not elderly, and overwhelmingly middle-class. But views on coalition don’t appeared to be linked strongly, if at all, to sex, age, or social/occupational background.
7 It will probably surprise no-one that (in reverse order of popularity), 3 % of rank-and-file Conservative members read the Sun, 17 % read the Times, 20 % read the Mail and a whopping 37 % read the Telegraph. But when it comes to Tory Party members and their views on coalition we can say that those views do seem to be associated with which paper they read, with those reading the Mail apparently particularly unenthusiastic about the coalition, but the association is not perhaps as strong as we might assume.
8 Our longest serving member had been in the Party for 53 years, whereas some had only just joined. The average length of service was an impressive 24 years. Although those who were keenest on coalition had been in the Party slightly less time than those who were not, the difference was insignificant.
9 Nearly half of all Tory members (44 % to be precise) are essentially inactive – doing nothing for the Party other than (hopefully !) paying their subscriptions.
10 Just under a third of members (30 %) spend no more than five hours per month on party activity of any kind, whether it be campaigning, leafleting, attending social events and/or meetings. A further 15 % spend between 6 and 20 hours a month, while only 8 % do more than that. Only 3 % of members could be called hardcore activists - people who spend more than 40 hours a month on party activity.
11Moreover, activity is declining. Just under a third of Conservative members say they do about the same for the Party now as they did five years ago. But only 18 % say they are doing more, while 39 % say they are doing less.
12Members’ views about whether the leadership should have formed a coalition with the Lib Dems in 2010 seem only to vary slightly according to how active they are. Some doing a little bit and even a fair bit of work for the Party every month are rather more positive – or at least less negative ! – than others who do less about the decision to share power with the Lib Dems. However, it’s noticeable that only 14 % of ‘hardcore’ activists (those spending more than 40 hours a month on party activity) think that the coalition was a good idea, compared to 33 % of those doing no work at all.
13 There isn’t really any evidence, however, that views on whether going into coalition was a good idea have anything to do with members becoming less active.
Not surprisingly – but reassuring rationally – views on signature policies and views on coalition do seem to be related
14 There does seem to be a relationship between support or lack of support for what one might call the signature policies of the two parties in the Coalition and views on whether, in hindsight, going into coalition was the right thing to do in the first place.
15We listed lots of coalition policies, without labelling them according to whether they were essentially Lib Dem, Conservative, or truly joint policies. And a clear pattern emerges : Tory members who think forming the coalition was the best thing to do back in 2010 don’t exactly support Lib Dem-inspired policies but they do object to them less than those who wish Cameron had gone for a minority government or an immediate second general election. Obvious examples the idea of a green investment bank which funds, among other things, wind farm projects, ending the routine detention of children for immigration purposes, delaying the decision to replace the UK’s Trident independent nuclear deterrent.
16 The same pattern emerges, in the expected direction, on policies which are not necessarily Lib Dem-inspired but seen as running contrary to conservative common wisdom or common sense : for example, cutting spending on the armed forces, ring-fencing the UK’s overseas aid budget, and gay marriage.
17Euroscepticism also seems to be associated with the idea that going into coalition in 2010 was not the best option. Among those who thought it was, only 54.1 % would vote to leave the EU if there were a referendum tomorrow. Among members who would in hindsight have preferred a minority government or an immediate second election, the figure rises to 79 % and 80 % respectively.
18 Similarly, only 22 % of those members who are comfortable with the coalition would vote against David Cameron were he to get a new deal with the EU that he then recommended to the country. True, those less comfortable with coalition would still be swayed by their leader, but some 46 % would nonetheless defy him.
19It comes as no surprise, then, that those who have more regrets about the coalition and wish that the Party had taken an alternative route are much likelier than those who don’t to be tempted by the fruit of Nigel Farage. Take all those who score seven and above on a zero-to-ten scale that asks them how seriously they would consider voting for UKIP : only 18 % of those who think in hindsight that Coalition was the right move in 2010 fall into that category compared to 29 % of those who would rather the Party had tried to form a minority government and 42 % of those who would have preferred an immediate second general election.
20Members views on coalition are associated with their ideological beliefs, but it is social rather than, if you like, economic conservatism that seems to make a difference – although not as much difference perhaps as their take on where David Cameron stands relative to themselves and, perhaps inevitably, what they think of his government’s record to date.
21 If we use the responses to certain questions to create a composite left-right scale, running, we do not find much evidence to suggest an association between members’ views on coalition and where we would place them on that scale. If, however, we construct a composite liberty-authority scale that we can use to tap into social attitudes rather than attitudes to the state and the market, we detect slightly more difference, particularly if we also throw the question about gay marriage into the mix.
22 We also asked Conservative members to place themselves on the conventional, intuitive left-right scale, running from zero to ten. At first glance, however, there is only the slightest association between that self-placement and people’s views on the wisdom or otherwise of coalition.
23 That said, there does seem to be an association between views on coalition and where members place the LibDems on the same left-right scale : those who are more content with the coalition see their coalition partners as slightly more centrist (placing them at 4.5) than do those who are less content, who place them further to the left (at 3.75 for the fans of a minority government and at 3.64 for those preferring an immediate second general election). It may also be worth noting that over on their other flank, the reverse is true, although the differences are slightly smaller.
24 Where perceptions seem to make more of a difference, however, is when it comes to gap between where members place themselves and where they place David Cameron. The average member puts themselves at 8.37. This suggests that they see themselves as slightly more right wing than the average Tory voter (who they put at 7.80) and the average Tory MP (7.90). The average score given to David Cameron, however, is 7.02.
25 Interestingly, the gap between the Prime Minister and his rank and file members who in hindsight still believe that coalition was the best option is just 0.54. The gap between him and those who preferred the other options is (in both cases) 1.79.
26Similarly, those keenest on coalition are significantly more likely to think that David Cameron is doing a good job as Prime Minister. As Mr Cameron would hope, the vast majority (76 % to be exact) of Tory members think he’s doing well. But those who are keenest on coalition seem to be more impressed – 84 % of them think Cameron is doing a good job. This figure falls to 74 % for those who reckon in hindsight that it would have been better to go for a minority government, and to just 57 % who would have preferred a second general election.
27One of the biggest bust-ups between the coalition partners was the failure of Conservative MPs to support the Lib-Dems’ plans for House of Lords Reform, which was swiftly followed by the Lib Dems scuppering Tory plans for a reduction in the number of seats at Westminster and an accompanying equalization of constituency sizes – plans which would have gone some way (though by no means all the way) to mitigating the British electoral system’s current bias towards the Labour Party.
28 Perhaps not surprisingly, 70% of Conservative Party members thought, on balance, that the Lib Dems had acted unfairly, although interestingly, while their views on whether their own MPs had acted unfairly in the first place were clearly partisan, they were rather more nuanced. On balance, a relatively surprising 38 % of Conservative Party members thought their parliamentary representatives had acted fairly rather than unfairly. On both counts, however, those who thought in hindsight that coalition was the right way to go differed from those who didn’t : they were slightly more sympathetic to the Lib Dems and slightly less sympathetic to their own side.
29 Our survey was conducted just after media reports someone in the upper reaches of the Party and close to the Prime Minister had supposedly been referred to the Tory rank and file as ‘mad, swivel-eyed loons’. We asked our respondents whether they thought, irrespective of whether these actual words were used, that they were an accurate reflection of how those closest to Mr Cameron view the Party’s members. Only a third of them (32 % to be exact) did so, while just over half (53 %) did not. Another 12 % didn’t know.
30 What is clear, however, is that there is a link between whether members believed this was an accurate reflection of how they were seen by the leadership and their views on coalition. Only 18 % who believe that the decision to enter coalition in 2010 was the right one thought it was an accurate reflection, but more than twice as many (39 %) of those who wished the Party hadn’t gone into coalition in 2010 thought it was.
31Asking a less loaded question elicits similar differences. We asked whether people thought the Party leadership respects ordinary party members. Overall only 7 % thought their leaders respected them a lot, although a further 38 % of them thought they were accorded a fair amount of respect. Only 11% felt they weren’t respected at all; however, a worrying 42% thought they weren’t respected very much. In other words, the proportion of those who don’t feel that the Conservative Party leadership respects its membership exceeds those who do by 53-45 %.
32Again, there does seem to be a link with views on coalition. Those who believe it was a bad idea to team up with the Lib Dems in 2010 are noticeably more inclined to believe that they aren’t respected by the leadership. Only 38% of members who think Coalition was the right decision in 2010 feel that members aren’t respected by the leadership. But that figure shoots up to 56 % of those who would have preferred a minority government and 71 % of those who would have preferred to see the Party call for an immediate second general election.
33 That said, even those Tory members who would have supported a minority government or a second election are realists when it comes to what might happen after the next election. Faced with a choice between losing office and returning to opposition or else doing another deal with the Lib Dems they’d do it all over again.
34 Not surprisingly almost all (97 %) of grassroots members who in hindsight agree, given the result of the 2010 election, that a coalition with the Lib Dems was the right thing to do would continue with that coalition if it were the only way for the Tories to hang on to power.
35However, the same applies to over two-thirds of those who think the Party made the wrong move going into coalition in 2010.
36 Overall, if another coalition with the Lib Dems were the only way that the Party could remain in office after the next election, some 79 % of rank-and-file Tories would go for it, with only 13 % preferring to return to opposition.
37Those who believe that forming a Coalition in 2010 was the right move are, it should be said, more optimistic than those who don’t about the outcome of the next general election. Or rather, they are less pessimistic : it’s still the case that only 12 % of them think an overall Tory majority is the most likely outcome.
38 It’s also worth saying that if we get members to rank all the possible outcomes in order of preference, only 30 % of those who think the Party did the right thing going into coalition in 2010 rank another Conservative-Lib Dem coalition as their second choice. Indeed, 44 % of them said a minority government was their second choice. In other words, should a majority Conservative government not prove possible after the next election, more of those who are keenest on the current coalition would go for a minority government next time around than take the chance to do it all again.
39 Taking members as a whole, a second chance for the current Coalition is the second choice of only 13 % of the Tory grassroots – which makes it not only considerably less popular as a second choice than minority government but also slightly less popular (5 percentage points less popular to be exact) than a coalition with other smaller parties.
40That said, we suspect that, if the next election produces yet another uncertain outcome, then Conservative Party members will ultimately accept whatever their leaders think will keep them in power. If that is another coalition with the Liberal Democrats, then so be it. We are used to thinking of the grassroots as zealous ideologues, but we should remember they like their party to govern, too !
Pour citer cet article
Tim Bale et Paul Webb, « So what do the « swivel-eyed loons » really think ? The Tory grassroots and their views on the coalition », Observatoire de la société britannique, 15 | 2014, 11-20.
Tim Bale et Paul Webb, « So what do the « swivel-eyed loons » really think ? The Tory grassroots and their views on the coalition », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 15 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2014, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL : http://osb.revues.org/1576 ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.1576Haut de page
Observatoire de la société britanniqueHaut de page