A number of different (but not mutually exclusive) approaches to the explanation of voting behaviour can be distinguished in the literature. Structural (or sociological) approaches concentrate on the relationship between individual and social structure, place the vote in a social context, and examine the effects on voting of such variables as social class, language, nationalism, religion, and rural-urban contrasts. Ecological (or aggregate statistical) approaches relate voting patterns to the characteristic features of a geographical area (ward, constituency, state, or whatever). Social psychological approaches relate voting decisions to the voter's psychological predispositions or attitudes, for example his or her party identification, attitudes to candidates, and such like. Finally, rational-choice approaches attempt to explain voting behaviour as the outcome of a series of instrumental cost-benefit calculations by the individual, assessing the relative desirability of specific electoral outcomes in terms of the issues addressed and policies espoused by the different parties or candidates. Each of these broad approaches tends to be associated with different research techniques and each makes different assumptions about what motivates political behaviour.
In Britain there has been a long-running debate about whether the influence of social class on voting behaviour has declined (the so-called ‘class dealignment thesis’), and about the extent to which this process is associated with the dilution of loyalty to the two major parties (the Conservative Party and the Labour Party) which have dominated the political system since the Second World War (the ‘partisan dealignment thesis’). Proponents of these arguments (see, for example, B. Sarlvik and and I. Crewe , Decade of Dealignment, 1983
) argue that both absolute class voting (the overall proportion of the electorate who vote for their ‘natural’ class party) and relative class voting (the relative strength of the parties in different classes) have declined continuously since the late 1960s and that this is connected to the decline in the share of the Conservative and Labour Party votes. They attribute this dealignment to a number of underlying social changes: changes in the occupational structure, the decline in the size of the manual working class, social mobility, and growth of cross-class families—all of which are said to undermine the socio-economic cohesiveness of class. As a result of class fragmentation, issues have become a more important influence on how electors vote, and voters evaluate the political parties as self-interested individuals rather than on a collective or class basis.
In a similar vein, proponents of the thesis of consumption-sector cleavages argue that increasing fragmentation has reduced the political distinctiveness of social classes, and that as a result of the growing importance of consumption, differences between those who are dependent on public rather than private consumption of goods and services (like housing, transport, education, and health) are the source of new political alignments. These sectoral distinctions have replaced class as the most salient structural cleavage, both in terms of debate between the political parties and in terms of voting behaviour. The private consumption of goods and services increases the propensity to vote Conservative while those dependent on public provision vote Labour. As with the theory of class and partisan dealignment, that of consumption sectoral cleavage emphasizes the growing importance of the media in shaping individual interests, and the particularly damaging effects of these changes on working-class support for Labour.
However, opponents of this view (such as A. Heath et al. , Understanding Political Change, 1991
) argue that class dealignment is a consequence of partisan dealignment rather than a cause. While absolute levels of class voting have declined, ‘trendless fluctuation’ in relative class voting suggests that social classes still retain their political distinctiveness. Indeed, class remains the major influence on voting behaviour; and, furthermore, consumption cleavages such as housing tenure (which are not especially novel) are merely correlates of class, and do not have important independent effects on voting behaviour. Calling for what they call an ‘interactionist’ approach to the analysis of the relationship between social structure, party performance, and vote, Heath and his colleagues argue that Labour's electoral failure in the 1980s was largely the result of across-the-board political failures (rather than underlying social changes), principally the policy failures of the 1964–70 Labour governments, the increasing number of third party (Liberal) candidates standing in working-class constituencies, the failure of the Labour Party to devise a credible economic policy, and its internal disunity. Class origins and class attitudes still influence how people vote—although class organizations like the Labour Party have not always been successful in mobilizing this potential in the political sphere.
In recent years, studies of voting behaviour have become a methodological minefield, as advances in techniques for the analysis of large-scale data-sets have fuelled existing controversies between different theories and models of voting behaviour. Concluding their admirable and exhaustive review of this literature, Jeff Manza, Michael Hunt, and Clem Brooks observe that the relationship between class and voting in the capitalist democracies of Western Europe and North America shows no evidence of being subject to a universal process of class dealignment, and that, at this juncture, ‘only one conclusion is firm: in no democratic capitalist country has vote been entirely independent of class in a national election’ (‘Class Voting in Capitalist Democracies since World War Two: Dealignment, Realignment, or Trendless Fluctuation?’, Annual Review of Sociology, 1995
). On the debates in the United States in particular see Richard G. Niemi and and Herbert F. Weisberg , Controversies in Voting Behaviour (1993
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