Conservative Party discourse on Europe: do Conservative Parliamentarians represent the party at the grassroots?

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: European Studies


Brexit is arguably the greatest political challenge the United Kingdom (UK) has faced since the Second World War. The UK's withdrawal from the European Union (EU) has given the Conservative Government the opportunity to shape politics for years to come, through negotiations with the EU and new legislation in Parliament. With such far-reaching effects, and with democracy in the UK depending on the representation of public preferences by Members of Parliament (MPs), it is imperative that the final Brexit deal is responsive to the voters.

The project will aim to answer the following research questions:
1. To what extent does the parliamentary Conservative Party represent the views of the party members in their discourse on Europe?
a. If party members are represented by Conservative MPs, are they represented in a symbolic and/or a substantive manner?
b. If party members' views on Europe are not represented by Conservative MPs, what are the main reasons for this?
2. To what extent do patterns of representation vary geographically in England?

In order to answer the above questions, research will draw upon Pitkin's four forms of representation (1980), which is widely considered essential, and the idea of party linkage. Party linkage has become increasingly fundamental to studies of representation and a theoretical base was developed by Lawson in 1980, where party linkage is used as a tool to assess the presence of democracy.

The discourse of Conservative MPs, as the 'party elites' in Parliament, will compared with that of the party members at the 'grassroots'. The study will use Discursive Institutionalism (DI) as a conceptual approach, allowing a systematic study of discourse in an institutional context. DI explores the content of ideas and the interactive processes through which ideas are generated and is considered valuable in studies on Europe, given its multifaceted nature as an issue.

Three research methods will be utilised. First, documentary analysis will explore the content of MPs' discourse, looking at primary data found in three debates at intervals through the passage of Brexit legislation. Second, interviews with MPs will explore how these ideas are communicated. MPs will be asked about their perspective on representation, how they represent local members and the challenges they face. Interviews will contribute to the dataset by uncovering what is not recorded publicly and any underlying motivations. Third, focus group research of party members in three parliamentary constituencies, with varied referendum results and geographical locations, will be carried out. This will allow a rich dataset of diverse views to be collected and geographical patterns of variation and specific conclusions about MPs' dilemmas of representation to be drawn.

This study is pertinent at a time when the Conservative Party is deeply divided over Britain's future relationship with the EU, and a disconnect between the party in public office and at the grassroots has been found. It matters not only for the consequences of these divisions on party unity, but also the implications that the divisions are likely to have on the representation of party members by the elites. If MPs are not representative even of their local party members, this has major implications for the democratic nature of the future EU-UK relationship.


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ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
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