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Home > Modern Studies > Political issues in the UK > Electoral systems, voting and political attitudes

Modern Studies

Electoral systems, voting and political attitudes

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Voting behaviour

Voting behaviour is the way in which people tend to vote. Voting is influenced by a number of different factors. The most important are:

  • social class
  • geography
  • age and background
  • issue voting
  • media

Social class

When voting analysis began in 1945 it became clear that social class was the most important factor in the way people traditionally voted. People tended to vote according to their natural class. This is not a perfect classification but will explain the social class influences on voting behaviour:

  • A - upper class
  • B - middle class
  • C1 - upper working class
  • C2 - lower working class
  • D/E - temporarily or long-term unemployed
Cartoon man trying to make a decision

From the 1940s to the 1960s the majority of the electorate were strongly linked to one or other of the two main political parties. Although there are always exceptions, party loyalty closely corresponded to social class. C1 and C2 voters tended to vote for the Labour Party and B voters tended to vote for the Conservative Party.

In the mid 1960s, B voters supporting Conservative and C1 and 2 voters supporting Labour accounted for 64% of the total vote. But the 1970s saw a decline in the number of people voting according to their natural class; this is referred to as class dealignment. By 1979, this had fallen to 57% of the total vote and the decline continued throughout the 1980s confirming that the British public were moving away from voting according to class.

One explanation for this is that the electorate was becoming better educated through more access to the media, which gave increasingly more information on politicians and parties. Also, in the 1980s and early 1990s, more C2 voters tended to vote Conservative. In the 1987 General Election, 42% of C2 voters supported the Conservative Party while only 35% voted for Labour. This was a total reversal of previous voting behaviour and was, partly, attributed to the policies of the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

The move away from voting according to class could also be due to a change in the size of the classes. Since the 1970s, the number of manual workers has fallen from nearly 50% of the population to just 33%. This is because of the changes in employment patterns, educational opportunities and the rising standard of living.

However, although it appears that voters are moving away from their natural class, statistics suggest that voting behaviour and class are still linked to some extent. In 2001, the highest social class, AB, voted 40% in favour of the Conservatives - less than in previous elections, but still a strong vote. Almost half of the working classes still voted Labour. The transfer of working class votes to Conservative and upper class votes to Labour might also be due to the fact that New Labour policies are moving further to the right. Although the elections in 1997 and 2001 saw Labour regaining C1 and C2 voters, this trend may be attributed to the collapse of the Conservative Party. It is said that opposition parties do not win elections; governments lose them.

In the 2010 General Election the Conservatives gained from all groups with the exception of the lowest class DE which stayed Labour. ABC1 (grouped together) had a 39% vote for the Conservatives while Labour had 27%. In the C2 class 37% voted Conservative compared to 29% for Labour, and in the DE group 31% voted Conservative and 40% Labour.

Geography

There is a consistent north/ south divide in voting behaviour in the UK. The north (Wales is also strongly Labour) tends to favour Labour and the south favours the Conservative Party. In 2001, the southern part of England voted 56.3% for the Conservative Party whilst the north of England, Scotland and Wales voted 82.4% in favour of the Labour Party. This pattern may be linked to the industrial past of the UK when heavy industry and links to trade unions were concentrated in Central Scotland, the North of England and Wales.

In 2010, Labour lost support in Scotland and Wales, generally to the Lib Dems or the SNP.

Age and background

Two young women and their grandad.

The writer G.B. Shaw once wrote that 'If you are not a socialist by the time you are 25, you have no heart. If you are not a Conservative by the time you are 35, you have no head'. There is a link between age and party support, although it is not easy to say why this is. Those under 35 tend to vote Labour and the Conservative vote increases with age. This may be because Labour was traditionally seen to be the idealistic party vote, looking for a more egalitarian society.

There is also a link between ethnicity and voting behaviour. The Labour party has tended to benefit from the ethnic minority vote, especially the Afro-Caribbean vote. This may be because, in the past, Labour policies have seemed more sympathetic towards ethnic minorities.

The Conservative again Conservatives made gains in 2010. Ipsos MORI has a detailed breakdown of how Britain voted in 2010.

Issue Voting

Public opinion is also influenced by what the parties publish in their manifestos - declarations of what they intend to do if they win the election. It is unlikely that a party which says that it will increase taxes will gain many voters, even if the money is to improve education. The economy, health, education and crime always feature highly on the minds of voters at election time. How a party addresses these and other important issues can either gain or lose them votes.

Media

Newspapers, magazines, television and radio also influence voting behaviour. The media is the means whereby voters form opinions on the ability of political leaders and whether the Government is doing a good job or not. While few will admit it, people are influenced incidentally by the editorial stance of a newspaper they read. People tend to buy the same newspaper regularly, often for reasons other than its political stance. But they will be influenced by its editorial opinions. Outside election times, most readers will not realise that the Daily Record favours the Labour Party and that the Daily Mail favours the Conservative Party.

Young man reading a newspaper.

It is assumed that radio and television coverage of political issues is impartial. But, despite the most professional reporting, sometimes the natural inclinations of individuals can seem to come out during an interview. All party leaders have at some time complained about the BBC, which suggests that it is impartial in its coverage. Many people believe that TV is more important than newspapers as fewer people buy newspapers now. However, politics can easily be avoided on TV by simply changing the channel.

There is also seen to be a danger that the ownership of the media is being concentrated in too few hands. News International, owned by Rupert Murdoch, controls a large number of news and media organisations. There are concerns that, as a result, he is able as an individual to shape public opinion and influence voting behaviour. In the run up to the 2010 UK General Election, the Sun newspaper ran the headline ‘Labour’s Lost it’, letting readers know it has switched its support from the Labour Party to the Conservative Party. The Sun has the largest circulation figures in the UK and famously supported the Labour Party in 1997.

The Internet now plays an important role in influencing voters. Like newspapers, websites are allowed to show bias. Politicians and political parties are keen to use websites, blogs, wikis, podcasts or having listings on social networking websites like facebook and twitter as a way of reaching voters, especially young voters. Young voters are less likely to vote. Voter apathy is a major obstacle for all political parties and politicians alike, with only 61% of voters turning out to vote in the 2005 General Election.

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Class Clips

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Class Clips

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Class Clips

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Class Clips

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