UK Politics

The strange truth about how and why we vote

A new book of essays by leading political scientists, Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, claims to uncover the real reasons why people vote the way they do. Here are 10 insights.

Mum knows best

Image copyright Thinkstock

Support for a party - like a football team - is often handed down from your parents. But repeated studies show it is mothers who have the biggest influence. This is due to the "frequency of interaction, regularity of political discussion and the numerous learning opportunities with the mother," says the University of Bath's David Cutts. Living with other voters also means you are far more likely to vote yourself - and married couples are more likely to head to the polling station than single or divorced people because they are more concerned about civic duty.

There is not enough money in British politics

Image copyright Getty Images

Big money is not a growing problem in British politics, argues Justin Fisher, professor of political science at Brunel University. The sums parties are allowed to spend at elections are steadily declining in real terms because they have not been adjusted for inflation. If anything, says Fisher, there is not enough money in British politics, although he also points out that there is little correlation between money spent and electoral success.

Conservatives are more conservative in the bedroom

Pollsters YouGov recently did some research on the sexual habits of different kinds of voter. Labour and Lib Dem supporters claimed to have the most adventurous sex lives. Labour voters also had the highest opinion of their own sexual prowess, claiming to be "long lasting, exciting and varied". Conservative supporters, by contrast, described themselves as "consistent, conventional, frequent". UKIP supporters were, if anything, even more conventional, writes YouGov associate director of analytics Bernadeta Wilk. Lib Dem supporters reported the widest range of sexual behaviours "including erotic massage, orgies, sex with someone from a different ethnicity and sex with a transsexual". What all this shows, says Wilks, is "the differences which draw people into rival political camps stretch far beyond politics".

Voters don't read to the bottom of the ballot paper

Research into local election results shows candidates with surnames beginning with A to F gain an advantage by appearing at the top of the ballot paper. Some voters cannot be bothered to read to the end it seems. Candidates with British surnames also do better.

Ethnicity is the strongest indicator of how someone will vote

Image copyright Stuart C. Wilson

Someone's ethnic background says far more about how they will vote than any other factor, including their social class. At the 2010 general election, 68% of ethnic minority voters backed Labour compared with just 16% who voted Conservative. That does not mean minorities agree with Labour's policies. Research shows many do not. But, says Oxford University's Anthony Heath, social pressure comes into play. New arrivals to the UK tend to join established ethnic communities, which have always voted Labour because they believe the party looks after ethnic minorities, while the Conservatives do not.

The internet does not boost political engagement

Image copyright PA

Political debate on Twitter tends to be between political insiders. Young people make spoof YouTube videos and jokes on social media at election time but there is no evidence it makes them more likely to vote, argues Marta Cantijoch, a lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester. "They are enthusiastic commentators on the campaign, but are apparently not interested in influencing the outcome," she adds.

Looks make a difference

Image copyright Getty Images

Being more physically attractive than your opponent gives you a 2% advantage at the ballot box, according to research by Caitlin Milazzo and Kyle Mattes. Women voters are more influenced by the "attractiveness" of a candidate than men.

The Iraq war did not destroy young people's faith in politics

Left-wing commentators such as Owen Jones and Laurie Penny claim Tony Blair's decision to invade Iraq in defiance of anti-war protests turned an entire generation off politics. But, argues Stuart Fox, of Nottingham University, there is no polling evidence to back this up.

The most left and right-wing constituencies

Image copyright PA

Chief Whip Michael Gove has the most right-wing constituents in the country, according to an analysis of the British Election Study. Voters in Surrey Heath, where Mr Gove has a 17,200 majority, believe strongly in low taxes and spending cuts. By the same measure, the most left-wing constituency in the UK is Glasgow North East, currently held by Labour's Willie Bain with a 16,000 majority.

Telling pollsters what they want to hear

Image copyright Getty Images

People are always ready to express an opinion - even on subjects they know nothing about. In a recent survey, 15% of people said they were either for or against the Monetary Control Bill. The Monetary Control Bill does not exist. Men are the worst offenders here, the research suggests. People also lie to pollsters. According to the British Election Study, 11.6% of survey respondents claimed to have taken part in the 2010 general election despite not doing so. That represents 5.3 million people. The reason for this, says Paul Whiteley, politics professor at the University of Essex, is that voting is seen as "socially desirable" and people, especially women, like to conform to the norm.

Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford, is published by Biteback. Listen to the editors discuss its findings on BBC Radio 4's The Westminster Hour.