Fewer than 160,000 people will select the next UK prime minister. Who are they?

Brexit backers.
Brexit backers.
Image: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
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For the first time in British history, the UK’s next prime minister will be determined solely by voters who are registered members of the Conservative party.

Some 160,000 people will vote by post to determine whether former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, or current foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, will replace Theresa May as party leader (and hence prime minister) in the wake of her resignation earlier this month. In a series of votes, Conservative party MPs had whittled down the list of ten hopefuls to these two candidates. The winner of the party vote will be announced by July 23.

Despite attempting to become more internally democratic in their approach, UK parties have come to reflect a smaller slice of British voters over the years. As a result, the Conservative party members electing the next leader of the country make up just 0.35% of the UK electorate, and are hardly representative of its demographics.

Why are so few people selecting the next UK prime minister?

Typically, UK leaders are determined in a general election held every five years. However, with the next general election only scheduled in 2022, May’s resignation has prompted a Conservative leadership contest at a critical time in the country’s history.

In a general election, Brits vote for the candidate that they would like to represent their constituency in UK parliament. The leader of the party with the most MPs usually becomes prime minister. In the past, MPs chose their party leader. But in an attempt to decentralize party politics, embolden grassroots members, and reverse decades of plummeting membership numbers, the Conservative party turned some of that power over to members in 1998 (Labour, the main opposition party, has done something similar over the years).

The rule change hasn’t quite worked. It remains relatively easy and inexpensive to become a party member—£25 a year for the Conservative party and £51.60 for the Labour party (£5 and £3 a year for students, respectively). But membership is still way down, from a height of nearly early 3 million Conservative members in the 1950s, to a respective 160,000 today (Labour member numbers also dropped, from 1 million to 512,000).

Declining membership reflects a trend in politics globally, and disillusionment with big-tent parties is partly to blame. In the UK, 82.4% of voters cast their ballot for either the Conservative or Labour parties in the 2017 elections, compared with 97% in 1951.

This is the first time since the 1998 rule change that Conservative party members will in effect directly select the next UK leader. They almost had the chance in 2016, when David Cameron resigned after the Brexit referendum and the final two candidates at the time, Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May, were about to be put to a similar postal ballot. But Leadsom pulled out of the race, opening the way for May’s uncontested election.

Who are the Conservative party members?

The last estimate of Conservative party membership published by the UK Electoral Commission pegged the number at 124,000 in 2018. But the party’s chairman recently said that membership numbers had grown to 160,000 ahead of the leadership contest.

The Conservative party doesn’t release detailed demographics of its membership base. But insight can be gained from The Party Members Project (PMP), a research initiative by Queen Mary University of London and the University of Sussex, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council. With the help of polling firm YouGov, it has been surveying members of the main parties since 2015.

The project’s research has found that Conservative party members are markedly less diverse than the UK population. Some 97% of the party’s members are white—compared to 86% of the UK population—according to the project’s Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary. That’s not all that different from other UK parties, whose members are over 95% white, Bale explains.

Tory party members are also older than the average member of other parties—most are above 55, and nearly 40% are above 66 years of age. Apart from the Liberal Democrats, they are the most likely to be middle class—and one in 20 members makes over £100,000 ($125,000) a year. Seven in ten are men, compared to the overall population, which is 51% female and 49% male.

What do Conservative party members believe?

PMP has also found, unsurprisingly, that Conservative members are more likely to have right-wing views than the UK public, with most identifying themselves as socially conservative. Their newspaper tastes reflect those leanings—the largest plurality read The Telegraph, followed by The Times, and then The Mail.

The next prime minister’s term will be defined by trying to secure the country’s exit from the EU, which ultimately proved an impossible task for Theresa May. In December, 57% of Conservative party members backed a no-deal Brexit as their first preference, according to PMP’s findings. Many worry that would be disastrous, and it’s certainly not something the UK public on the whole is in favor of: A YouGov poll earlier this month found that 50% of Brits say a no-deal Brexit is a bad outcome, while 13% say it’s an acceptable compromise, and 25% a good outcome (the remainder say they don’t know).

Who will Conservative party members back?

If voters opt for a demographically-similar candidate, the favorite for party leader will be white, male, and in favor of a hard Brexit. Johnson, who played an instrumental role in the 2016 Leave campaign, ticks off all those boxes, and is a frontrunner.

The next prime minister could face an immediate confidence vote in parliament, should he take power in late July. The Conservatives, and the Northern Irish DUP, which backs the minority government, would need to rally behind the new leader in order to hold onto power. Failing that test could mean a general election—and an arguably more democratic contest—would be in store.

This post was updated on June 21 with the names of the final two Conservative leadership contenders.