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Elections & Voting Explained

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Deciding UK General Election results: short-term versus long-term factors

There are many factors which go into deciding UK General Election results. Here we examine the influence of long-term factors compared to short-term ones.

Long-Term Factors

There are long term differences in the level of support that the parties gain from social groups of the population.

Older people are more likely to vote for the Conservatives while the youngest age group is more likely to vote Labour, Liberal Democrat or Green.

Lower skilled workers and people who live in social housing are still more likely to vote Labour

Most ethnic minority groups have always strongly supported Labour

Professional and managerial groups working in the private sector are more likely to vote Conservative

Support for the Conservatives has been lower in Scotland and the North-East of England, even accounting for social differences between regions while in East Anglia Conservative support is higher.

There are, of course, plenty of voters in each group that do not follow the trend and it is always possible for a party in any single election to detach more of the group that they get less support from.

Each party has voters who identify with it strongly and will almost always vote for it.

This is related to social group but is not the same and there will be strong party identifiers for all the parties in each social group.

There are also weaker party identifiers who often vote for the party but are more likely to be detached by the other parties in a particular election when short term factors are favourable.

It was thought that party identification developed in childhood and early adulthood, because of family and other social influences.

This is true of some people but the most recent extensive study of voting in British elections by Howard Clark and others, detailed in Political Choice in Britain, has shown that some people switch their identification when they change their vote and then keep this identification for succeeding elections.

This is most likely to happen in defining elections that set trends for the following elections such Mrs Thatcher’s first victory in 1979 and Tony Blair’s in 1997.

The public hold long term views as to what they think a political party is like.

The image of the Conservative Party as the party of business and of the rich and as the ‘nasty party, in Theresa May’s words, which is hostile to minorities, continued, despite Cameron’s modernisation of the party after he became Leader, and make it difficult for certain voters to ever support it.

The Conservatives have the image as the party of low taxation and economic competence, although this was dented badly for a period after 1992 when the Conservative Government was forced to devalue the £ for the first time in the history of the party.

Labour has an image as the party of social equality in income, race and gender but also as the party of high public spending.

Voters are always ready in surveys to distinguish parties on a left right spectrum.

Parties can shift as the Liberal Democrats did under Kennedy, moving to the left and this will have an effect on voting but not all voters will perceive the shift.

The parties also tend to have long term ownership of particular issues and the best policies to deal with them.

The Conservatives have ‘owned’ immigration, at least until UKIP gained major support, and crime prevention, while Labour have ‘owned’ the NHS and dealing with unemployment.

The Greens have ‘owned’ environmental policy, although this can become a problem if voters think that is the only area where they really have policies.

Parties can neutralise their rivals’ ownership of issues either by moving towards them, as Cameron did on the NHS before 2010 and Blair did on crime prevention before 2010, or by trying to drive the issue off the media’s agenda so that voters pay less attention to it.

Short Term Factors

The popularity of party leaders has become more important with the ‘presidentialisation’ of British elections, so that media attention concentrates on how well the leader is performing and whether they are in control of their parties.

Voters’ impressions of leaders are formed within a year or so of them taking up the position and are difficult to shift although the leaders’ debates provide an opportunity to do so.

Less popular leaders can win an election as Heath did against Wilson in 1970 and Thatcher did against Callaghan in 1979 but the role of the leader has probably become more important than it did in the 1970s

Some people may look at the details of party policies and decide how to vote on the basis of these, but most people rely on a general impression of the parties.

What political scientists call the ’narrative’ that a party and the leader develops in the run up to the election is critical and has to be convincing.

This provides a vision of where the country is going, how problems can be tackled and how voters will be affected.

Valence issue such as the general competence of the Government and the party leaders and how they will handle the economy and public services are critical in deciding how people will vote.

The state of the economy and how well off people are as a result of the state of the economy have always been seen as a key factor.

The success of the Conservatives with the economy in 1987 and Labour in 2001 was clearly a key factor in their victories.

A crisis in public services such the NHS will have an effect.

Some party policies may become what political scientists call ‘salient’ in any particular election.

If unemployment is rising or there is a crisis in NHS funding then Labour may be seen as the best party to deal with it, while if there is a public deficit the Conservatives may be seen as better at controlling it.

The role of the media is important.

Television and radio have a requirement to be politically neutral but the ‘agenda’ they create, that is the issues to which they give most prominence, will affect the parties differently.

The newspapers are mostly partisan so that they support a party and cover stories favourable to it.

Less people now read the newspapers but they often set the agenda by profiling stories that television channels then give prominence to.

Stories that occur during the final campaign that put the parties or their leaders in a bad light will have an effect, especially if they reinforce views that the voters already have.

The election is in the end decided in 650 different constituencies.

Local issues and the popularity of the candidates will affect the outcome.

MPs, as long as they have been active in the constituency, have an incumbency factor which will give them extra votes.

In 2001, for example, there was a swing toward the Conservatives in the overall vote which should have led to Labour MPs in a group of marginal constituencies being defeated but in fact they held on, often with increased majorities.

The quality of organisation of each of the parties and so how many voters they can talk to or deliver letters and leaflets to, is also important and Labour in 2010 was felt to have the most activists and this limited the number of seats that they lost.