When Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked by a western ‘liberal elite’ newspaper editor about his own democratic legitimacy last month, he scoffed at the prospect of the UK ushering in a new PM on the basis of a tiny Tory ‘selectorate’. It was perhaps the first and last time I agreed with Putin on anything.
This Tory leadership election is a moment in history in itself. It is the first time that Conservative members alone will have selected Britain’s new Prime Minister. For much of the long history of the Tory party, the leader was selected in a process which looked a little like a Papal succession. The top brass of the party would meet in smoke-filled rooms in Westminster and – in time – a puff of said smoke would appear and a new leader would be duly anointed.
This process continued well into the mid 1960s and was not formally turned into a secret ballot of all Tory MPs until 1965. When William Hague became leader of the Tories in 1997 he changed the system to allow all Tory MPs to select two candidates who would face a ballot of all Conservative party members. In 2001 Ken Clarke faced off against Iain Duncan Smith. Clarke the pro-EU Tory lost 39%:61%. By the early part of the 21st century the Tory centre of gravity had already turned majority Eurosceptic.
Duncan Smith resigned in 2003 after a torrid time as leader and subsequent elections of future leaders did not allow Tory members to choose the future PM. Michael Howard was unopposed by MPs and was anointed as Tory leader without a membership vote to become Britain’s opposition leader. In 2005, David Cameron was placed head to head with David Davis in a battle fought out in the country with Conservative members to select another then opposition leader against Tony Blair. When Cameron fell on his sword after the Brexit battle in 2016, Theresa May entered Downing Street unopposed as her opponent Andrew Leadsom withdrew from the context of the final two.
The majority of members of the Conservatives are aged over 55 and almost 40% are aged over 65
So the new occupant of No 10 will be the first to be directly chosen by Tory party members alone. What do we know about them? Here I am leaning on tracking research from Professor Tim Bale from Queen Mary College in London who has been monitoring party membership demographics for several years.
His latest analysis shows there are now around 160,000 Conservative members who have paid at least £25 to join up – that’s up around 30,000 in the last 18 months when the last official figures were published. The numbers are eclipsed by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour which has around 500,000 paid-up members, but now well ahead of the Lib Dems on around 100,000.
But the demographics are striking. The majority of members of the Conservatives are aged over 55 and almost 40% are aged over 65. Some seven out of ten members are male compared to Labour and the SNP who both have almost gender parity right now. While most voters – who of course are not members of any party – asked to rank themselves on a scale of one to ten as either being left wing or right wing place themselves in the middle, Tory members place themselves around ‘7.6’ on the scale closest to right wing. Some six in ten would like to see a return of capital punishment for certain crimes.
In the 1980s, the Conservatives also built up support from former Labour voters who were dubbed ‘blue collar’ Tories. But right now, Tory members are overwhelmingly middle class with a hefty 86% defined as part of social groups ABC1.
63% of Conservative members would see Scottish independence take place to allow Brexit to happen
But it is Brexit – of course – that is the defining issue for most of them. Some 66% of Tory members would be happy with a ‘hard’ Brexit and most were not happy to sign up to Theresa May’s deal with the EU. It is that issue which has pushed the current Tory leadership contest in the direction of a debate on exactly that issue.
Finally the Tory party still calls itself the Conservative and Unionist Party – a reference towards long-standing support for Scotland and Northern Ireland as part of the UK as a core tenant of its belief. Not any more, it seems. Recent polling by YouGov showed that 63% of Conservative members would see Scottish independence take place to allow Brexit to happen. And 59% would ditch Northern Ireland as part of the UK to allow Brexit.
For the first time in our history ordinary Tory members will select our new PM. They have very different characteristics to voters electing a Prime Minister in a General Election. It’s a new experiment in British history. Let’s see if it works.
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