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About this book

• How do voters in Britain decide which party to vote for in elections?
• Why do smaller parties get more support than they used to?
• How do the mass media influence political opinions?

The authors examine these and other questions in the third edition of this popular text. They trace the evolution of the British electorate over the post-war period, and focus in particular on recent elections – from Labour's victories in the 2000s through to the hung parliament of 2010.

As well as examining and explaining theories of party choice – including the view that voters' evaluations of government performance and party leaders are now the key determinants of election outcomes – the authors also devote separate chapters to turnout trends and patterns, electoral systems and the geography of party support. Campaigning, opinion polls and the mass media are also considered. Fully revised, the text incorporates the latest research on elections and voting behaviour, and includes analysis of recent trends and developments – including how 'new media' are affecting election campaigning.

Table of Contents

1. Studying British Elections

Abstract
The British general election of 1950 was the first ‘normal’ general election after the Second World War. Due to the war, the previous election in 1945 was the first to be held for ten years and it had taken place while the war with Japan was still in progress. Many electors were still serving overseas with the armed forces, with about three million being registered as ‘service voters’. By 1950 things had settled down and the election of that year is an appropriate point of departure when surveying electoral developments in Britain over the post-war period.
David Denver, Christopher Carman, Robert Johns

2. Turnout: Why People Vote (or Don’t)

Abstract
Electoral turnout is a variable. The level of turnout varies from country to country and within Britain it varies from one type of election to another and from one election to the next. In any one election turnout varies across constituencies or wards and it also varies from person to person: some people vote and some don’t. Variations across different types of election in Britain between 2005 and 2010 are illustrated in Table 2.1.
David Denver, Christopher Carman, Robert Johns

3. Alignment and Dealignment

Abstract
This chapter is about two phases in Britain’s post-war electoral history. The 1950s and 1960s are conventionally viewed as an ‘era of alignment’ in which most voters saw themselves as belonging to a particular social class and, in turn, identified with and voted for the party thought to do most for people of that class. Then, from around the beginning of the 1970s, a process of ‘dealignment’ — a weakening of voters’ identifications both with social classes and with parties — quickly gathered pace. Of course, any attempt to divide history into distinct eras — or, for that matter, to divide the electorate into distinct groups — is bound to be an over-simplification. Voters did not wake up on New Year’s Day in 1970 and decide to start dealigning themselves. Change within the electorate is a more gradual and piecemeal process and, as noted in the previous chapter on turnout, is often driven more by generational shifts in the make-up of the electorate than by individual voters changing their attitudes or identities. Indeed, plenty of voters did not change across the two ‘eras’. Significant minorities of voters in the 1950s and 1960s felt no strong class or partisan attachment, while significant minorities today identify strongly with a party. Nonetheless, even if to talk of a change from alignment to dealignment is something of an over-simplification, electoral analysts generally agree that in broad terms it captures the major change in voting behaviour during the period since 1945.
David Denver, Christopher Carman, Robert Johns

4. Issues, Policies and Performance

Abstract
If a political commentator or politician of the 1920s or 1930s were able to read the previous chapter then he or she would be amazed at the relative lack of attention given to party policies or to topical events and political issues. Before survey studies of voting behaviour began, elections and voting were conceived of largely in terms of choices between competing sets of policy proposals. The voter was pictured as weighing up the policies of the different parties, or the qualities and positions of candidates, and on that basis deciding whom to support. The party which won an election was thought to have a ‘mandate’ from the electorate for all of its policy proposals as detailed in its election manifesto. In the nineteenth century, the political philosopher John Stuart Mill (1963 edition: 302–4) said this about the voter:
His vote is not a thing in which he has an option … he is bound to give it according to his best and his most conscientious opinion of the public good … the voter is under an absolute moral obligation to consider the interest of the public, not his private advantage, and give his vote to the best of his judgement exactly as he would be bound to do if he were the sole voter and the election depended upon him alone.
David Denver, Christopher Carman, Robert Johns

5. Party Image and Party Leaders

Abstract
A judicious comparison of the parties’ stances across the full range of issues might still be regarded as the way that voters should decide. However, it is obviously an extreme case: at most, a tiny minority of people really do choose in that way (and probably few people ever did). The key conclusion from the previous chapters is not the trivial point that British voters are unlikely to pore over party manifestos. The point is rather that issues and policies, long regarded as the main currency of electoral politics, actually carry much less influence over voting behaviour than has generally been supposed. One reason for this is that a substantial proportion of voters continue to identify quite strongly with one of the parties and, as a consequence, tend to approve of its policies and performance on an issue anyway. Yet, even if dealignment has meant that many ‘voters begin to choose’, there remain two key reasons why these choices are not driven by policy. One reason has to do with limits on voters’ political awareness. Few have detailed knowledge about parties’ policies, let alone over multiple issues, and there are easier ways of choosing between parties than by accumulating such information at election time. Second, for much of the post-war period in Britain, even if a diligent voter did undertake a comparison of policy positions then he or she would have found more similarities than differences. Issue stances are not a very useful basis for choice during such periods of consensus. Instead, parties compete — and voters choose between them — on the basis of general impressions of competence. With the parties broadly agreed on the objectives of governing, the decision concerns which party is most likely to achieve those objectives. In short, despite dealignment, electoral choice continues to be more about parties than about issues.
David Denver, Christopher Carman, Robert Johns

6. Campaigning and the Mass Media

Abstract
For as long as there have been contested elections there has been election campaigning: that is, those standing for election and their supporters have endeavoured, by a variety of means, to persuade the relevant electorate to vote for them. Until well into the nineteenth century the main means of persuasion were ‘treating’ (providing electors with alcohol and other forms of largesse) and bribery. The earliest reference to treating was in 1467, while the first authenticated case of outright electoral bribery occurred in the reign of Elizabeth I (O’Leary, 1962: 6–7). Campaigning remained overwhelmingly a local-level activity until the start of the twentieth century when the introduction of the first of the mass media — cheap, mass circulation, national newspapers — along with steady increases in the sizes of constituency electorates led to the development of national campaigning. Local campaigning continued, of course and, as we shall see, has recently been taken much more seriously by the parties. For much of the latter half of the twentieth century, however, the parties’ efforts and the attention of the media were mainly focused on the centrally directed and managed national campaign.
David Denver, Christopher Carman, Robert Johns

7. Electoral Geography and Electoral Systems

Abstract
Electoral geography focuses on spatial variations in electoral behaviour: that is, variations across regions, constituencies, wards or neighbourhoods (see Johnston et al., 1998). There is nothing new about this approach. Indeed, comparing election results from one place to another is probably the oldest form of electoral analysis and is something which all psephologists do, not just those with specialist expertise in geography. Comparing turnouts in different constituencies, for example, involves examining spatial variations. In this chapter the focus is on variations in party choice and, in this respect, where people live is an important part of the context within which voters make their decisions; it is a contextual variable.
David Denver, Christopher Carman, Robert Johns

8. Elections and Party Choice in Contemporary Britain

Abstract
One of the pleasures — and, occasionally, frustrations — of studying elections is that they keep happening. No sooner, it seems, have the data from one general election been collected, analysed and pored over than people are looking forward to the next. In addition, once every five years there are elections to the European Parliament, and these tend to fall conveniently (for analysts, if not governments) between Westminster Parliament elections (2004, 2009 and so on). There are now also elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and, if that were not enough, there are annual rounds of local elections. ‘Elections galore!’, one might say, and certainly more than enough to satisfy the keenest enthusiast and keep electoral analysts busy. The fact that there is always another election just around the corner means that there can be no ‘last word’ as far as explaining voting behaviour is concerned. Explanations of how individuals come to make their choices have to be refined; the outcomes of particular elections require explanation. The simple passage of time — with associated social changes and changes in the parties themselves — means that well-established theories have to be re-examined. In addition, the introduction of more proportional electoral systems has meant that voting decisions have become more complex; there is more to understand than there used to be.
David Denver, Christopher Carman, Robert Johns
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