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How do Voters Decide who to Vote for? – Partisan Dealignment

From the mid 1970s the discussion among political scientists was about the changing patterns of voting and the new factors that lay behind these.

The Liberal breakthrough at the February 1974 election, when they secured 19% of the vote, and the successes of the Scottish National Party reinforced this. In a 1974 article Ivor Crewe questioned the stability of the relationships that Butler and Stokes took for granted. He used a number of indicators (European Journal of Political Science Vol. 2 No.1, 1974):-

  • Voters felt that there was less differences between parties
  • Voters were becoming more dissatisfied with the party leaders
  • The two main parties were getting a smaller proportion of the overall vote
  • There was more voter volatility in national elections, by-elections, local elections and in the opinion polls

Crewe concluded from survey work that partisan identification was not stable but voters changed the party that they said they identified with to match their recent voting behaviour.

These findings and further changes in the 1979 and 1983 elections led to ideas of partisan dealignment so that the two main parties no longer maintained the loyal support of voters but also class dealignment so that the traditional Conservative strength in the middle class and Labour strength in the working class was also declining:-

  • 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 changed much less.
  • 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
  • (Ivor Crewe in West European Politics Vol.6 No. 4., 1984 gives a detailed explanation of the arguments around class and partisan alignment).

Reasons for the decline of traditional party and 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
  • The movement of agricultural workers to the towns where they might abandon traditional voting patterns
  • A more affluent home owning and suburban working class especially in the South and the Midlands, more ready to vote Conservative
  • 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
  • A more secular society with residual patterns of Anglican and Nonconformist voting changing

There was also the view that there were fundamental changes in the basic values of groups in society as a result of the 1960s revolution in attitudes.

Ronald Inglehart surveyed citizens in Western European countries and found generational differences in views.

The generation that had experienced the depression of the 1930s and the Second World War had what he called a material view of politics, giving priority to economic security and a strong defence policy.

The generation gaining the vote in the 1960s were more concerned with issues such as the environment, greater democracy and personal freedom. These postmaterial groups tended to vote to the left, even if they were middle class, thus reducing the impact of the class cleavage. (R. Inglehart The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles among Western Publics, 1977)

More ways to explain voting behaviour?

Lipset and Rokkan’s cleavage idea was so powerful that writers began to look for new cleavages that structured voting patterns. The possibility was that realignment was occurring along new cleavage lines.

Patrick Dunleavy proposed the existence of a set of consumption cleavages based on private ownership as against collective services so that there would be differences of interest between owner occupiers and those in social housing and those who mainly used the car as against those who mainly used public transport (P. Dunleavy, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 9, 1971).

Herbert Kitschelt, saw a reaction against the new postmaterial values of feminism, environmentalism and gay rights from voters who support populist and extreme right parties to create a new libertarian/authoritarian cleavage (H. Kitschelt The Transformation of European Social Democracy, 1994 and The Radical Right in Western Europe: A Comparative Analysis, 1995).

Although both these sorts of conflicts are undoubtedly important, the difficulty is that they have not really been able to explain voting patterns to any significant degree.