Accessing information about Britain’s party members is difficult to do. Parties are traditionally very guarded about their members information, as shown with recent calls for the Conservative party to release its figures.
Party membership has been in decline for decades, but the last three years have seen somewhat of a renaissance in Britain, with Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the SNP all reporting a surge in figures for various reasons.
The problem is finding out who these members are and why they join. There is a large body of political science literature on this topic, with various survey having been conducted on the different parties over the years. The latest study, the large Party Members Project, funded by the ESRC and led by political scientists Tim Bale, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti, aims to understand who joins modern political parties from large samples of modern party members.
A newly released report from the PMP sheds some light on this question. Here are seven key findings.
1. Party members are predominantly male
This has long been noted to be the case in Britain and often elsewhere, but the new findings reaffirm this picture. 71% of Conservative members, 63% of Liberal Democrat members and 57% of SNP members are male. The party with the closest to a 50-50 split is the Labour party, with 53% of its members reportedly being male.
2. Members are usually old
The average age of each party’s membership is as follows: Conservatives 57, Labour 53, Liberal Democrats 52 and SNP 54. This challenges the narrative that swathes of young people are joining the Labour Party, as just 4% of Labour members are reportedly in the 18-24 age bracket.
Strikingly, 15% of Conservative members are aged 75 and over.
3. Party members are overwhelmingly white
Between the parties, there is very little variation. 97% of Tory and SNP members said they were white as did 96% of Labour and Liberal Democrat members.
4. Members are also predominantly middle-class
88% of Liberal Democrat members and 86% of Tory members reported to being in the ABC1 social grades. The figures are less for Labour and SNP members (77% and 74%) respectively, but still show the dominance of middle-class members across the board.
5. Labour, the Lib Dem and SNP members share many of the same views
When members were asked for their opinions on a range of social and economic issues, Labour, Lib Dem and SNP members gave similar answers gave mostly similar answers. For instance, the vast majority of said members disagreed with the notion that “Young people today don’t have enough respect for traditional British values” while most also agreed that the government should redistribute income. In contrast, Conservative members on the whole gave answers in direct opposition to Labour, Lib Dem and SNP members.
Progressive alliance, anyone?
6. Members’ left-right placements
On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being left-wing and 10 being right-wing, Labour members place themselves furthest to the left at just above 2. SNP members on average place themselves between 3 and 4, and Liberal Democrat members put themselves at just below four. On the other hand, Conservative members place themselves on average between 7 and 8, reiterating the differences between the sets of parties.
7. Most Labour members want a referendum on the Brexit deal
That’s right, 78% of Labour members surveyed agreed that there should be a second referendum, as did 91% of Liberal Democrats and 87% of SNP members. Just 14% of Conservative members wanted another referendum, which itself is an interesting find. There was also strong support for customs union and single-market membership from the three progressive parties.