Voting behaviour in Britain

Voting behaviour in Britain: Why do people vote the way they do?

One of the commonest assumptions about British elections, that the fundamental divide in politics was about social class, has been turned on its head in the last few years. New dividing characteristics have been emerging, particularly cultural and values-based, and the picture now looks far more complex. The 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2017 general election seems to have produced new alignments, although it is still early days as to whether this will prove long-lasting. So, what are the key factors influencing how people vote, their voting behaviour?

Age replaces class

As class was seen as the major determinant in voting behaviour in the 1960’s, so today psephologists such as John Curtice consider that it has been replaced by age. Younger voters tend to vote Labour and older ones Conservative. This is to some extent complicated by the current importance of Brexit, since younger voters tend to be more pro-Remain and older ones Leave-voting. Curtice says that there is now little difference between the larger parties on class, whereas there is a marked difference on age.

Social class

It seemed an abiding characteristic in post-war British elections that British politics was all about class, that predominantly working class people voted Labour and the middle class voted Conservative. This was particularly seen in the industrial areas, where whole swathes of South Wales, the West Midlands, Lancashire, West Yorkshire, the North-East, and around Glasgow were solid Labour areas, along with inner London. By contrast the outer London suburbs, the leafy “Home Counties” around London, and vast areas of rural southern England were “true blue”. Butler and Stokes in Political Change in Britain (1969) described how how communities, localities and families would hold consistent political affiliations. Variants on this view emerged, such as how one could actually measure class, such as according to occupation (manual, semi-skilled, skilled, professional, etc.; the A, B, C classification) or according to a more subjective self-perception, how one regarded oneself. Thus an objectively-measured middle class managerial or professional person, for example, might say they are “working class”.

Fragmented social class patterns

In the last few decades however, this monolithic view has broken down. What has become clear it that the UK now has a much more fragmented class-base to voting. Social and economic change, and in particular de-industrialisation, growing automation and increased precariousness of certain forms of work (eg. “Zero-hour” contracting), and increased affluence and, for a while, increased opportunity for some, has broken down the old industrial working class patterns as large-scale traditional industry has all but disappeared from large parts of South Wales, the Midlands and the North.

One such study has recently suggested that the UK actually has seven “classes”, the Elite; the Established Middle Class; a Technical Middle Class, New Affluent Workers; Emergent Service Workers; the Traditional Working Class; and a Precariat at the bottom of the heap (see p.230,

This is not to say that class-based voting has disappeared, but rather that the picture is far more complex.

One feature that has recently discussed is the fall in turnout among working class voters and their withdrawal from participation due to a sense of exclusion, that they were excluded from participation policy-making in British politics. This is discussed in detail in another article on this site (scroll to “Low turnout in voting”).

There is an important book on the absention by working class voters in Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley’s book, ‘The New Politics of Class: The political exclusion of the British working class‘, Oxford University Press, 2017. This book argues that the changing shape of the class structure (from a ‘big working class’ to a ‘big middle class’) since 1945 has forced the parties to change, which has both reduced class voting and increased class non-voting. There has however been enormous social continuity in class divisions: class has not “gone away”. Yet there has been enormous political change in response to changing class sizes. Party policies, politicians’ rhetoric, and the social composition of political elites have radically altered. Parties offer similar policies, appeal less to specific classes, and are populated by people from more similar backgrounds. Equally, the mass media have stopped talking about the politics of class. These political changes have had three major consequences. First, as Labour and the Conservatives became more similar, class differences in party preferences disappeared. Second, new parties, most notably UKIP, have taken working class voters from the mainstream parties. Third, and most importantly, the lack of choice offered by the mainstream parties has led to a huge increase in class-based abstention from voting. Working class people have become much less likely to vote. Britain appears to have followed the US down a path of working class political exclusion, ultimately undermining the representativeness of our democracy.

In the 2016 referendum this trend was reversed and there was a far bigger turnout in these groups, particularly in the Leave-voting “left behind” areas, a trend that seems to be benefitting the Conservatives.

A YouGov poll before the 2019 general election has found that 45% of working class voters are likely to vote Conservative and 31% Labour.

Culture and values

More recently, it has been argued that culture and values play an important part. This is not new but has been thrown into sharp relief by the 2016 Brexit Referendum, and made much more clear by the 2017 general election. One such study suggests that voters divide according to whether they hold an “Open” view towards the world, globalisation, immigration, multiculturalism, etc., or a “Closed” one, anxious about change, wanting to preserve traditional ways, ethnically white, opposed to immigration, nationalistic. The study also said that there is an age-related factor too, younger voters born from the 1970’s onwards were more “Open”, while older voters more “Closed”. It suggests that the future lies with a more progressive, “inclusive” politics.

Some have speculated that Britain is showing some of the signs of those seen in the US of “culture wars” between two sharply different perspectives on the world. This becomes much clearer when one looks at regional differences.

Recent research has reinforced the impression that Brexit has created a re-alignment in voting behaviour away from party identification towards a Remain or Leave identity. These identities have become very entrenched and strongly held, with mutually hostile views towards those of the other “side”. Some see this as part of a growth of “identity politics”, as also with nationalist and anti-immigrant parties. Research by Curtice has shown a big difference between a 44% Remain/Leave identity compared with a 9% “very strong” party identification. It has also been suggested that these views will be long-lasting, and could have a major impact on voting behaviour long-term, especially if the major parties re-configure around this major issue in British politics.

Some would also associate particular personalities with voting patterns. Thus those with “authoritarian” personality traits would be more likely to vote Brexit, featuring a strong desire for order, obedience, conformity, and cohesion within the “in-group” with which the person identifies. Remainers would be more likely to be “open” and flexible.

Regional and national difference

There was a marked regional variation to voting across regions and in Scotland and Wales. Labour strongholds were in Inner London, South Wales, the West Midlands, the North and Scottish Lowlands. Rural areas and the South were Conservative. The “Celtic” nations voted differently to England. The last few years however have seen a realignment.

Devolution of power to Wales and Scotland has been paralleled by a greater sense of national identity. In the devolved assemblies, nationalist parties have been very assertive. In Scotland the SNP has taken power and in 2014 held an independence referendum. This was followed by a near-clean sweep by the SNP in the 2015 general election (56 seats), where Labour, the LDP and the Conservatives shrunk to 1 seat each, and the SNP won 50% of the popular vote. Wales also saw a fall in the Labour vote and seats, although nationalism was less strong there. In 2017, the general election produced a Conservative revival (13 seats), with a fall in SNP seats to 35, and smaller gains by the others.

While Labour still has a strong representation in its traditional English and Welsh areas, the loss of Labour seats overall has weakened its chances of forming a government. This has been compounded by other regional and local changes

The “Left Behind”

A key phenomenon behind the brief rise of UKIP and the Brexit vote has been a shift away from Labour in particular of voters in declining and marginalised areas of Britain. A shift away from Labour in the Scottish Lowlands to the SNP was paralleled in England and South Wales to populist and right wing candidates. The areas concerned were declining seaside towns in areas like East Kent, the South coast, East Anglia, and Eastern England, and former traditional industrial and coal-mining communities in South Wales, the West Midlands and Northern Britain. Some of the strongest Brexit-voting towns were Mansfield, Barnsley and Sunderland, all in the past Labour.

These communities have been studied by Ford and Goodwin and dubbed the “Left Behind”. These are people who are older, white and traditional working class with few educational qualifications and holding views that have become marginalised as parties have chased metropolitan, multi-ethnic and more affluent voters. These people have been “regarded as parochial and intolerant by the younger, university-educated, more socially liberal elites who define the political consensus of twenty-first-century Britain” (Ford and Goodwin). Thus they have turned to more radical right-wing forces and voted against the “politically-correct” elite.

Generation, education and ethnicity

As should be evident from the above, age, education and ethnicity are also powerful influences. Looking at recent elections and the Brexit referendum, it was the university towns, metropolitan areas and big cities that showed a strong pro-Remain and anti-Conservative voting trend. These are areas with big concentrations of younger voters, ethnic minorities and higher levels of education.

One of the major trends of the last few decades has been the spread of university education, now reaching 32.6% of 18 year-olds going to higher education in 2017. In 1972 one in seven 18 year-olds were so educated. On broader measures it has now reached 49%. Thus Britain’s communities can be sharply differentiated on education, if we compare the cities with the marginalised under-skilled “left behind” areas. Level of skill is now crucial to someone’s career prospects in our highly technical world. In the “left behind” communities young people have few or no qualifications and low employment prospects.

Immigration has resulted in significant areas of the UK with a strong minority ethnic concentration, as in parts of London, the East and West Midlands and former textile towns in the North. These have traditionally been Labour voting but increased has made for a more diverse picture in certain areas. A growth in the multi-cultural character of cities has chimed with the more open and socially liberal character commented upon above, although in other areas more strongly conservative.

The Conservatives should in theory be able to capitalise on the spread of education, on aspiration and increased affluence, and yet their stance on the EU has meant that young, educated and ethnic-minority voters overwhelmingly backed Labour in 2017. Thus a traditional Tory city like Canterbury with its university swung to Labour.

Allied to questions about age is the concept of political generations, where young voters who “come of age” politically speaking at a particularly impressionable point will retain their orientation through their voting life. Thus the post-war generation who voted in the formative 1945 election after the end of the 2nd World War held a strong view about the merits of the Welfare State, state intervention and the NHS, or its opposing belief system. Equally those who “came of age” under Mrs Thatcher are known as “Thatcher’s Children” and hold power today. Thus the neo-liberal policies of Cameron, Osborne and May still hold some validity for such people and Brexit-supporting people argue in favour of “completing Mrs Thatcher’s revolution” in areas like de-regulation after Brexit. It is said that this generation will be replaced by a more “Open” generation who favour more inclusive policies.

Equally, one should be careful in assuming that all older people are more Brexit-supporting. While that may be true of the post-war “boomer” generation, those who were born before the Second World War and whose formative years were during the Second World War have a pro-Remain tendency that is almost as strong as Millenials.

Party loyalty and electoral volatility

It was once thought that voting could be very predictable, that a small swing would see the “other side” in power, that party loyalty was strong and it was all down to the “floating voter”, that there was a clear choice before the voter between strong competing options on offer from the parties. Not so now.

Today’s electorate is very volatile and elections are at present very hard to predict, so much so that there is a bit of a crisis of confidence in the polling industry. In 2017, it looked as though Mrs May had the election in the bag, with a big poll lead. Yet it was her’s to lose, and she did. Labour’s result, while not quite a victory, was a surprise.

Voters switch parties with comparative ease, not necessarily following any distinct pattern, and easily switching sides between each election. An example of electoral volatility can be read here, an article by YouGov’s Peter Kellner in 2014.

With the 2015 and 2017 elections, volatility has reached unprecedented levels, as the British Election Study has shown in a new book. In 2015, some 43 per cent of voters supported a different party from in 2010; and in 2017, 33 per cent changed their vote from 2015. Overall, across all three of the last elections between 2010 and 2017, half of people (49 per cent) did not vote for the same party each time. In 2017 there was the largest switching of votes from Conservative to Labour and vice versa ever recorded by the BES. The authors estimate that fully 11 per cent of voters switched between the two main parties. Even in the immense Labour landslide of 1997, when a record 28 per cent of all seats changed hands, the comparable figure was 9 per cent.

It follows that party loyalty is much weaker than before, that “strong party identifiers” are relatively thin on the ground. Canvassers have to be careful in categorising someone as one of “their” voters. They might change their mind! One also must caution that degrees of “political mobilisation” vary and it has been estimated that only just under 25% of voters are strongly involved in matters of politics.

In the above-mentioned BES study there is data that tracks the collapse in strength of party identification over past decades. In 1964, 48 per cent of Conservatives described their party identification as “very strong”; the figure among Labour supporters was 51 per cent. In 2017, the comparable figures were 14 per cent and 23 per cent respectively.

Not surprisingly therefore the importance of party-political belief and ideology has weakened. One of the big concerns of recent years has been the view amongst the voting public that there was “not much difference” between the parties. Ideology in the sense of the competing visions of socialism and free enterprise that characterised the immediate post-war period have all but disappeared, so much so that it can perhaps be a disadvantage to be seen as ideological. Thus Corbyn struggles to convince with his Bennite “left wing” views from the 1970’s and early 80’s. However, with Brexit, a sharper distinction has emerged, such as the free market neo-liberalism of the Brexiters as against the interventionist beliefs of Corbyn, although this is perhaps partial since both parties officially accept the 2016 referendum result.

Political issues and voter perception of party

When we turn to what many would regard as crucial to their voting, how the parties stand on the big issues of the day, matters arise such as competing manifestos, the party’s record in government, what the opposition offers as alternatives, and how voters think each will perform when faced with the challenges of power.

One issue stands out head and shoulders above the others, the economy, how it has fared under the party in power and what might be at risk if “the other side got in”. An example of how crucial this is can be seen in how Labour as the party in power when the Great Recession hit in 2008 were successfully blamed for what happened, thus destroying Labour’s painstaking efforts to build credibility in the period up to the the Blair landslide of 1997 and afterwards. From 2010 the Conservatives have successfully exploited this advantage and it remains one of Labour’s biggest obstacles to regaining power.

In the same way, Labour was blamed for the crisis leading up to Mrs Thatcher’s victory in 1979, the “Winter of Discontent” and in particular the local authority workers’ strike and the pictures of rubbish accumulating in the streets. The poster by Saatchi and Saatchi showing a dole queue and the slogan “Labour isn’t working” stuck in the collective mind for ages. This was after a period when Labour in power had struggled to manage the economy. One can also point to the 1945 landslide for Atlee’s Labour and the rejection of the war leader Churchill, since there was a desire for a healing and social reconstruction after the war and the Conservatives were associated with being the party of the 1930’s high unemployment.

It might seem needless to say that the economy impinges on how well off people feel, on their ability to manage their own affairs, their sense of security and vulnerability. An economic crisis, like that of 2008, regardless of who was to blame (bankers? poor regulation?), hits the party in power at the time.

Political issues in themselves are not necessarily on their own decisive as a collective, but certain issues can combine with the other factors discussed here to play a big part. Hence immigration was a major underlying factor in the 2016 vote, and squeezed out such perennial matters as the state of the NHS or crime levels. In May 2016 Ipsos-Mori’s monthly issues index had immigration as the top issue, the NHS second and the EU third.

How a party has performed, its previous record and its credibility and perceived competence is the relentless subject of media analysis and of campaigning points in a general election. Arguably Blair won a series of general election victories (1997, 2001, 2005) on the basis of competence in power as opposed to the divided opposition who had been prone to scandals under John Major. This coincided with a long period of economic boom.

Leaders, events and elections

Another commonly-mentioned factor in voting is the salience and perceived competence of the party leader, while again not decisive on its own. In fact the picture can be a mixed one. Despite all her travails and governmental crises, May is still regarded as a better leader than Corbyn, and the Conservatives have almost level-pegged with Labour since the 2017 election when “normally” the opposition would be doing better in mid-term. Although he lost the 1979 election to Mrs Thatcher, Jim Callaghan was still seen as the better leader. Tony Blair, while untested as a leader, outshone the divided-party and crisis-prone John Major, and went on to continue to outshine a succession of leaders put up against him until he retired in 2007. Macmillan retired in 1963 and the new and very aristocratic Sir Alec Douglas-Home struggled to make an impact against the sharp, brilliant and witty new Labour leader, Harold Wilson, who won in 1964. It is worth pointing out that a new leader can often be behind in opinion polls even though their party might win the election.

Influence of events can also play a part, so often unpredictable and sometimes devastating. “Events, my dear boy, events”, Macmillan is alleged to have said when speaking of how such things can blow a government off course. His predecessor, Eden had been a glamorous politician who succeeded Churchill but rapidly lost credibility over the Suez Crisis in 1956. Mrs Thatcher was behind in the opinion polls in the early 1980’s during the economic recession that had followed the hard monetarist polices introduced to tackle the economy. Yet the Falklands War (1982) , and the revived patriotism that came in train, turned her fortunes radically around such that she swept to a landslide victory in 1983 over a divided Labour party with a radical left-wing manifesto, dubbed the “longest suicide note in history”.

Role of the media

It was the Sun wot won it” proclaimed the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper after the election of 1992 resulted in a surprise win for John Major when previous polling had suggested a Labour win. This was also an election when Labour’s perceived inability to manage the economy went against it. The quote is often cited as an example of how an important newspaper’s political support can tilt an election a particular way. The difficulty with this hypothesis is that it is notoriously hard to prove, as the above example shows, when set against other factors. Most newspapers are Conservative-leaning, and yet Labour has won quite a few elections.

Nevertheless politicians spend enormous efforts to cultivate press support, and Murdoch has derived considerable benefit from his seemingly easy access to No. 10 in successive administrations, both Labour and Conservative. He also has a great knack of backing the winning horse and shifts his allegiance accordingly.

Political scientists concede that press allegiance plays a part, whilst also arguing that people “see through” bias and are not so readily swung by media opinion. If anything people pre-select their media according to pre-existing attitudes.

However, the physical press is now on the wane, their circulation rapidly shrinking ,and they are being replaced as a source of news and opinion by social media, blogs and other online media. The power of press “barons” like Murdoch is correspondingly less too, and he has recently found himself at a disadvantage against the Big Tech companies. There is also the question of the role of “fake news”, propaganda put out by forces both within and outside the country to influence opinion, such as alleged Russian state-sponsored hackers like “Fancy Bear”, although political advertising has a long history far pre-dating the internet. In 2018 the right-wing press attempted to smear Corbyn with his alleged contacts with a Cold War Czech spy, quickly disproved, and yet Labour felt sufficiently strong in its ability to counter the physical press with social media to take on and face down their attacks. In fact such events have proved to be great recruiting sergeants for party memberships since such attacks have resulted in spikes in applications.

The campaign

Social media has become a major factor during an election campaign however, as it was brilliantly exploited by Labour in the 2017 election and by the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, and neglected by their opponents. It is through this media that well-organised campaigns can target specific groups with appropriate messages, and can build networks and bring groups together around common causes. There is however some concern being expressed as to how open and transparent such work is, and how data is obtained, particularly with the advent of AI round the corner. One company, Cambridge Analytics, came in for particular criticism in this respect.

The election campaign can be the occasion when the election is won and lost. Mrs May started the 2017 campaign with a very strong lead, but frittered it away with poor campaigning. She allowed the campaign to be tightly controlled by her team, and excluded other strong politicians. Her manifesto contained unpopular or anachronistic proposals, such as a vote on bringing back fox hunting or removing the state pension triple lock which would adversely impact a key set of  Tory voters. She kept relentlessly to what proved to be a very uninspiring message of being “strong and stable”, when her government looked anything but that, combined with a wooden and uninspiring personal style. Meanwhile, Labour targeted their efforts in marginal seats and had available a massive army of enthusiastic young supporters from the Labour-supporting group Momentum and students mobilised by the threat of Brexit. The Tories, with a small and dwindling set of activists, were totally out-gunned.


On election day, voter turnout can also be important. Traditionally older voters are more likely to vote than young voters, and older voters tend to be more Conservative. In 2018, YouGov reported,”While 57% of 18 and 19 year-olds voted last week, for those aged 70+ the figure was 84%”. The challenge for Labour today is to get out the youth vote, since age is one of the biggest determinants at present, as this YouGov study shows. Linked with this is the readiness of voters to register, since people now have to register themselves. Thus parts of the younger, poorer and more mobile populations can be disenfranchised purely by not being registered. Additionally, generally the very poor do not vote. More on this problem with turnout here and here

A note about Northern Ireland

Reference in this article has been to voting on the island of Britain. Yet Northern Ireland, historically the province of Ulster and called the Six Counties by Nationalists, is part of the UK. I should point out that voting and party ideology and behaviour in Ireland works to some extent to different principles to those in Britain. Northern Ireland is divided by strong sectarian divides, Protestant and Catholic, the latter favouring union with the South and the former for retaining the union with the rest of the UK. Sectarianism transcends class. It divides localities, towns and cities. There are also those who are non-sectarian, many of whom support the moderate Alliance Party.

As time passes, Catholic voters are becoming the majority sectarian group and it is thought make more likely an eventual successful vote for union with the South, although Protestant resistance can’t be ruled out. Protestant parties no longer enjoy an automatic majority in elections.

Northern Irish politics should perhaps arguably be seen more in a Whole-of-Ireland context and that, as well as being very different in voting behaviour terms to Britain, is why it is not included in the above discussion. It is acknowledged too that the British Isles have long suffered from an Anglo-centric perspective on its affairs.

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