It’s my party and I’ll join if I want to: explaining the Labour/Conservative divide

by Tim Bale, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti

Party membership is vital to the health of our representative democracy. Members contribute significantly to election campaigns and to party finances. They are the people who pick party leaders. They constitute the pool from which parties choose their candidates. And they help anchor the parties to the principles and people they came into politics to promote and protect.

The Party Members Project began just after the 2015 general election. We surveyed members of the six biggest parties with the support of ESRC funding and YouGov’s huge internet panel.

The surveys we conducted constitute a rich resource for anyone wanting to understand who joins political parties, why they join and how they do so. They give us an insight into members’ ideas and priorities. And they give us a sense of what members do for their parties at election time, how they see candidate selection, and their impressions of, and satisfaction with, the organisations they’ve joined.


Our most recent survey, the 2017 ‘leavers’ survey’ will allow us to conduct the most comprehensive study of why people give up their membership – something which should prove interesting to academics and parties alike.

So what have we found out so far? A lot – so much that here we’ll focus on the parties that have dominated British politics for nearly a century: Labour and the Conservatives.

First up, what do members look like and what do – and don’t – they have in common?

Based on our latest research we found:

  • Members of both parties are overwhelmingly white and predominantly middle class.
  • People from black and minority ethnic communities constitute just three and four per cent respectively of Tory and Labour grassroots.
  • While only just over half of British adults are in occupational groups ABC1, those same ABC1s make up 86% of Conservative and 77% of Labour members.
  • Partly as a result of so more women joining from 2015 onwards, Labour is much closer to gender parity than its main rival: 47% of Labour’s members were women in the summer of 2017, compared to 29% of Conservatives.
  • Although Labour (because of its sheer size) has far more young members, membership isn’t necessarily as young as all the photos and footage of Momentum activists and Glastonbury-goers chanting ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ suggest. Quite a few of those who joined the party fairly recently were actually ‘re-treads’ – folk who left Labour as Blair led it into the centre and the Iraq war but who now feel they’ve ‘got their party back.’

It’s ideas and issues rather than demographics that throw up the biggest divides

  • Austerity: 98% of Labour members think it has gone too far, compared to just 11% of Conservative members.
  • Redistributing income to the less well-off? Only 15% of Tory rank and file agree, compared to 94% of their Labour counterparts.
  • Social and moral issues: 54% of Tory members support the death penalty, compared to just nine per cent of Labour members. Gay marriage is supported by just 41% of Tories but 85% of their Labour counterparts.
  • Brexit: Around a quarter of Conservative members appear to favour staying in the single market and the customs union – an option favoured by around 85% of Labour members, some 78% of whom (compared to just 14% of Tories) would like to see a second referendum on leaving the EU.

So how does the Party Members Project differ to other good surveys of party members conducted before?

First, by fielding simultaneous and largely identical surveys of members of the main six parties without having to rely on the cooperation of the parties themselves, we can better compare those members and ask any questions we want without worrying about whether the parties approve.

Second, because these surveys were conducted immediately after two general elections (in 2015 and 2017), they allowed us to ask about participation in campaigning when memories were still relatively fresh.

Third, we were able to field similar questionnaires to people who identified strongly with one of the six parties but who hadn’t gone so far as to actually join it, allowing us to investigate the prompts for and the obstacles to joining more comprehensively than ever before.

Tim-Bale-2016Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Tim works on all aspects of party politics in Britain, Europe and sometimes further afield.

Tim has published a number of books on the Tories and Labour, and has written for national papers including the Guardian.

Monica-Poletti-2016Dr Monica Poletti is postdoctoral research fellow at Queen Mary University of London. Monica’s research interests include political participation, electoral behaviour and public opinion.

Monica is currently researching Euroscepticism, populism and political culture, and political communication during the economic crisis.


Paul Webb is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex and co-editor of the journal Party Politics.

Paul’s research interests lie in the field of representative democracy, with a particular focus on British and comparative party politics, and electoral processes.


This piece first appeared as a feature in issue 30 of Society Now.

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