Essay: “Family background and social class are most influential in determining voting behaviour in Britain.” Discuss.
There are many different factors that affect voting behaviour in Britain, such as; media, political campaigns/broadcasts, opinion polls, tradition, social/family background, gender, age, ethnicity and even religion. These factors can be put into two groups, volatile; things which are more immediate such as campaigns, policies, opinion polls etc. and stable; things that are long term such as family/social background, religion, upbringing etc. People look to these factors, among other things, to explain why there is such a low turnout of voters in British General elections; in 1992 only 77.7% voted. This dropped to71.5% in 1997 and down to an unbelievable 60% in 2001. In this essay I am going to discuss these factors and determine which factors have more effect on voting behaviour, volatile or stable.
Family background and social class are two factors which definitely fall into the ‘stable’ category. These are obviously stable as they are both long term pressures that occur in peoples lives from a very early age. I would certainly agree that these were influential factors because this determines what kind of life the person has, whether they are rich or poor, working or upper class, what education they had etc. In politics, these are all important as most people vote for the party which best represents their social class. For example, if a person is well educated and has had no trouble finding work they may not appreciate something like a benefit system to help the unemployed. For those who don’t have a job or don’t earn enough money, this is vital and this could therefore cause difference in the parties people vote for. This type of voting is less popular now because the class system is less prevalent than it was in, say, the 70’s and earlier.
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At this time, manual workers made up the working class and non manual made up the middle class. It was typical for lower, working class to vote for labour and middle to back the conservatives. Although parties are becoming more coherent on their policies now, these stereotypical roles have stuck with some parties, as Conservative’s are usually tagged as upper class and Labour/Liberal’s are more working class parties. There has, however, been a definite change as shown in the results of the general elections in 1992 and 1997. In 1992, an average of 25% of upper and middle class voted for Labour, whereas in 1997 an average of 39% voted for Labour showing a definite increase. This means the parties are beginning to appeal to different classes. Family background is important too because this gives people their basic background values for life therefore, if they have had a particular part of their lives improved by the actions of a party, such as welfare reforms, they may remember it when they grow older and could make them vote as their parents have for the party that they have always known.
Gender, age, ethnicity, region and religion are another set of stable, personal reasons for the way people vote. Certain M.P.s working in specific regions may be more helpful and could then persuade more people to vote for that party. Also, more typically working class areas usually vote for Labour as this party is known for best representing their needs. In the ‘conservative’ south people usually vote conservative. This could stem from the 1940s when the south was viewed as more prosperous and therefore contained richer people who may have felt better represented then. Theses stereotypes are fading with the typical old industries of the north being replaced by new ones. Age might also be a stable effect because certain eras have dominating parties and also parties change policies all the time which could mean different age groups are more affected than others. For example the university fees are being introduced and the future students will oppose these and therefore vote against Labour. Those who are older may have missed the fees and therefore do not sympathise with the younger people and may still vote labour.
Ethnic minorities such as refugees may prefer the policies of a party who has helped them, e.g. Labour has been very accommodating to refugees and has given them houses and benefits. The results of the 1997 election showed that 81% of black and Asian voters voted for Labour. In this election, 98% of black and Asian voters, voted showing that they also appreciate the right to vote more as the turnout of general elections for the whole country is sometimes only 60%. Gender might have been a factor when things were less equal between men and woman but this is a rare occurrence now as all parties usually cater for both men and women equally. I think that politics is a basically male-fronted filed but if there was a party run by women they would be supported by some women just because they are women.
The issues I have discussed so far are mainly stable reasons but there is also volatile or ‘short term’ reasons which can explain voting behaviour in Britain. Some people may have been recently influenced by the actions of one party. For example Tony Blair took Britain to war against Iraq which some people who support Labour might have thought was pointless and these people may have decided to vote for another party. However, this may have proved to be the right move for some people and this could encourage votes for the Labour party. Also, different leaders of the party may appeal more to some people than others.
Party Political Broadcasts are always an area of discussion as many people believe they are a failing point of campaigns. Many people find them boring and hard to understand and feel, therefore, that they do not have a lot of influence in the way they vote. Some say they are too long and old fashioned, and full of political jargon that they use to ‘skirt’ around the real issues. However there are some people who believe that Party Political Broadcasts are a useful way for the parties to tell the public about their plans, and therefore, for those who watch them, they obviously provide some insight into who to vote for.
Different parties may conduct better political campaigns than others, like in Labour’s 2001 campaign; Labour highlighted their most important issues to be education and health, which affects every one’s lives, whereas the Conservatives concentrated on the euro and asylum seekers, neither of which directly link in with ordinary people’s lives. Such policies may have been too confusing for some to understand (and too boring for them to try and understand). These policies also concentrated on European issues too much to which the press was hostile. Events such as the ‘Prescott Punch’ would be seemingly disastrous to most parties but due to good spin doctoring Labour got quite gentle treatment from the media; most people thought that it made him look more normal and down to earth.
The media always plays a big part in the campaigning and publicity of the parties. Most people in Britain read a newspaper so what the press thinks really does count. In the 1992 election, the newspapers veered away from health and education which would have put Labour in a favourable light, and focused more on taxation, which gave the Conservatives the kind of publicity they needed to win. In 1997 the media helped design a new and energetic image for labour emphasising that Labour had given up on socialism.
Often, before an election happens, opinion polls are published showing who the favourite party is. In France these are actually banned in the weeks before the election because of the supposed damage to voting behaviour. Some believe that seeing their party in the lead can cause people to think there is no need for them to vote, so they stay at home. Oppositely seeing their party losing can cause people to become dispirited and therefore not bother to vote because they think that their vote won’t make any difference. Also voters can be so easily influenced that it has been known for them to switch to the winning party just to be on the winning side. Small scale, this does not seem like much of a problem, but if the whole country is affected by the same principles then the vote could be entirely inaccurate. Exit polls are much more effective than the polls taken prior to the election and do not disrupt voting patterns so seriously.
A by-product of opinion polls is tactical voting. Tactical voting is where the voter does not vote for their own party, but votes for the party closest in opposition to their worst party. For example if the Conservatives were winning, followed by Labour but the Liberal Democrats had no chance of catching them up, then a Liberal Democrat supporter might vote for Labour to prevent the Conservatives from getting into power. The Labour and the Liberal parties are quite cohesive on their policies. In the 1997 and 2001 elections this was seen as a very helpful boost for Labour as many Liberal supporters voted for Labour in order to keep the Conservatives out.
In conclusion to this, I would say that both volatile and stable have an equal, but different effect on voting behaviour in Britain. Stable influences can cause patterns in voting and can help the voter to pick a favourite party, generally. Volatile factors cause more fickle changes of the mind and give more unpredictable results.