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Elections & Voting Explained

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Why do people vote the way they do?

One of the biggest problems for political scientists is to try to explain why people vote the way they do because there are so many different factors that can influence a voter’s choice and people cannot always clearly express the reasons for their choice. Here we look at social, rational choice and class alignment.

The studies

The first detailed studies of voting related to the American Presidential elections in the 1940s and were undertaken with the expectation that the campaign and the discussion of issues during it were the main factors affecting voting.

They found that, actually, the campaign had little effect and that the main determinants of how people voted were social factors and, in the American context, class, religion and ethnicity were the main social factors.

The study of European voting patterns by Lipset and Rokkan and the electoral surveys of Butler and Stokes in Britain in the 1960s seemed to confirm this.

Butler and Stokes in Political Change in Britain concluded that the important social factor in Britain was social class so that voters had a strong perception of whether they were working class or middle class.

The majority of the working class voted Labour and the majority of the middle class voted Conservative through a process of class alignment, although there was always a significant proportion that did not vote the way the rest of their class did.

Other writers argued that neighbourhood factors were important so that people were subject to influences from people around them who were of the same class.

The stereotype would be the working class council estate where people worked in nearby factories or frequented the local pub or working men’s club as against the suburban middle class area with different local institutions where people met, such as the Women’s Institute and the golf club.

Butler and Stokes also found that a large proportion of voters supported the party that their parents did. Thus people were socialised through family connections into support for a party as they grew up and this would tend to remain with them for the rest of their life.

This meant that there was partisan alignment with voters identifying with one of the two main parties.

The great majority of people strongly identified with the Labour or the Conservative Party and voted accordingly. Thus class alignment and partisan alignment in Britain were closely connected though not identical.

This would also explain some of the middle class Labour supporters who had grown up in working class families and kept their party support as they moved into middle class occupations.

Butler and Stokes argued that differences in election results were decided by which group tuned out to vote in the greatest number and by the small number of floating voters who were weakly aligned to parties and who might switch between parties.

Evidence of Partisan dealignment

From the 1970s there was evidence of partisan dealignment:-

        The two main parties were getting a smaller proportion of the overall vote. In 1951 the Labour and Conservative parties had over 96% of the vote. In the first of the two general elections this had fallen to 75% with an increase in voting for the Liberals and the SNP and in 2010 general election it was down to 65%.

        There was more voter volatility in national elections, by-elections, local elections and in the opinion polls demonstrating that voters were ready to abandon their traditional loyalties. Plaid Cymru and the SNP made breakthroughs in by-elections in the 1960s as did the Liberal Party.

        Between 1964 and 1979 the proportion of voters saying that they ‘very strongly’ supported one of the main two parties declined from 40% to 19%, although the proportion of voters saying that they supported a party, if only weakly changed much less.

Class Dealignment

This seemed to be accompanied by a process of class dealignment:-

The proportion of voters who voted along traditional class lines fell from 65% in 1959 to 47% in 1983. Butler and Stokes in their second edition of Political Change in Britain found a weakening of traditional patterns of voting among the youngest voters.

This has continued so that in 2010 Labour had the support of more middle class than working class voters.

Class dealignment is often seen as only affecting the Labour Party because it has lost some of its traditional working class support but there has also been middle class dealignment affecting the Conservative Party.

Even though the middle class has become larger, the Conservatives have lost middle class support to the Liberal Democrats, to the SNP in Scotland and even to Labour.

Reasons for a decline in class loyalties

It was not difficult to put forward reasons for the decline of traditional party and class loyalties:-

        The growth of public sector employment and white collar unions led to more support for Labour among middle class groups

        A more affluent home owning and suburban working class especially in the South and the Midlands, more ready to vote Conservative

        A decline in manufacturing jobs and the traditional manual jobs and trade union organisation that went with it.

        A greater disparity of income between the trade union  organised and the unorganised working class

        More people going into higher education and an electorate with more access to information through the media

        Immigration and new patterns of ethnic minority voting

        New issues of national identity and devolution in Scotland and Wales

        A more secular society with residual patterns of Anglican, Catholic and Nonconformist voting declining

Rational Choice Theory

A major alternative to the idea that voting is determined by people’s social background is rational choice theory.

The American political scientist, Anthony Downs, in the 1950s saw voters as making the same sorts of decisions as consumers do when they decide which product to buy.

Voters have preferences as to what policies they want.

These may be the policies that most benefit them personally or policies they might believe in strongly such as the importance of international aid.

They will look at what the parties are offering and choose the party that most closely matched their preferences.

Political scientists also argued that as the electorate became better educated a process of ‘cognitive mobilisation’ took place so that voters were more aware of political issues and more ready to find out what the policies of the political parties were.

With the evidence of a decline in class and partisan alignment, political scientists began to look at the opinion poll evidence as to which issues the voters thought were most important and which party they thought was the had the best policies on the issues, with the assumption that voters would make a rational choice on this basis as to which party to vote for.

However, in the 1987 and 1992 elections, voters named the issues that they thought most important, especially health, and saw Labour as having the best policies, but it was the Conservatives who won the two elections.

Rational Choice theorists now argue that it is not detailed policies as such that decide voter choice in most cases, as voters rarely know what these are, but instead a few valence issues. These act as a shorthand for voters to judge which is the best party and, in particular:-

        Who do they think is the best party leader/potential or proven Prime Minister?

        Who is best at running the economy?

        Who will ensure the best public services?

The most thorough recent study of voting behaviour in Britain by Howard Clark and others, Political Choice in Britain, used survey data from 1964 to 2002 and found that the valence rational choice model provided the best explanation of voting behaviour especially in the most recent periods.

They also found that partisan support was not stable.  Voters might change their allegiance and then identify more strongly with their new party for several elections after this.

This switch came especially around defining elections which set the political landscape for a decade such as the victory of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 or Tony Blair in 1997.