The socio-economic background is vital in explaining voter's behaviour during elections. This system involves examining the social class, gender, ethnicity, region of voters which are permanent and long term factors. However, there are various theories and models that are devised over the years to make sense of voting behaviour. The model that determines voting behaviour by using socio-economic factors is Social Structure Model or the Primacy Model. Traditionally, class is seen in occupational terms. It can be divided into manual and non-manual jobs.
The former also known as the working class are expected to vote for the Labour Party while the latter also known as middle and upper class are more likely to vote the Conservatives. However, between 1945 and 1970, a majority of people belonged to the working class. In theory, people would vote according to occupational class and the Labour party would have won every general election during this period. This did not happen as there was some degree of cross-class voting with more manual workers voting for Conservatives instead. Also, more non-manual workers voted for the Labour Party.
Critics point out that the Social Structure Model is changing as relationship between class and votes seem to be weakening. Since the mid 1970s, political scientists have claimed that a process of class dealignment has taken place. Social class is not the only primary factor that determines the socio-economic background of voters. Region is also part of the socio-economic background of voters. During the 1980s, political commentators increasingly used the term "North-South divide" to describe the geographical polarisation of support for the Labour and Conservative parties.
Generally, the North tends to favour the Labour government while the South favours the Conservatives. Although regional differences existed before the 1980s, two new developments have been discovered about voting patterns. Since 1970, the voting behaviour has changed as swings vary from region to region. A further spatial divide has been revealed. Since 1959, electoral support for the Conservatives has shown a relative decline in urban areas while the vote for Labour has decreased in rural areas.
Since the 1970s, it is evident that there is a relationship between economic fortunes of the regions and patterns in party support. Johnston and Pattie (1992) have emphasised the connection between regional voting patterns and regional economic factors. During the 1980s, those areas in Britain that experienced an economic decline saw the Conservative votes fall while those faring better showed a drop in the Labour vote. These findings suggest the significance of social and economic context in which people live.
The Primacy Model involves examining the correlation between age/gender and voting behaviour. Survey data from elections shows a tendency for younger people to vote for Labour and older people to vote for Conservatives. In the October 1974 election, 42% of new voters voted Labour compared to 24% who voted Conservatives. Although in 1983 and 1987, the Conservatives obtained a clear majority from the youngest voters. By 1997 the traditional pattern seemed to have reasserted itself with Labour once again winning a majority of first time votes.
The changing workforce that includes more women has made an impact on the voting behaviour. It was only during the mid 1990s that the number of women in paid employment reached a similar level to that of men. Reason being people are being exposed to pro-Labour ideas and influences at work because of the collective experience of a workforce and participation of the Trade Union Movements. Also, fewer women are staying at home. As a result, traditional values regarding family and domestic life that was emphasised by Conservatives have less impact.
However, political scientists must bear in mind that the Social Structure Model is not the only method used to determine voting behaviour. In order to have an accurate overview of voting patterns in the UK, other models and theories must be accessed. The Party Identification Model can be used in comparison with the Social Structure Model to examine if socio-economic factors play a part in determining voting behaviour. "Party Identification" refers to the attachment, over a period of time, to a particular political party.
According to Miller (1990), the basic claim of this model is that many voters identify themselves as supporters of a political party. During the 1960s, the effects of political socialisation are made emphasis. It is a process by which people acquire their political attitudes, values, and ways of behaving. It is usually assumed that the majority of people retain party preferences when they are first politically aware. The extent, direction and intensity of a supporter vary.
Recent research shows that high level of strong party identification are likely to mean that few people switch their votes while less intense level of support suggests party dealignment and more electoral volatility. During the 1997 election, both parties had similar outlooks and so the results were more volatile. The use of the Party Identification Model is to suggest that one cannot merely access socio-economic background of a voter to affirm the voting behaviour in the UK. However, the Party Identification Model has been criticised since 1979 onwards where Magaret Thatcher took over as prime minister.
It was the dawn of a new era where voting behaviour changed simultaneously. The trend over 1951-2001 shows a decline of the total percentage of people who voted for Labour and Conservative governments. The increase in party dealignment is due to generational effect where new choices are made available to the younger voters and with the help of education, people are better equipped with knowledge to know the rational choice of voting. In the 21st century, the move of the political spectrum is evident as Tory moves more to the left and Labour moved to the right.
The last most effective model to use to explain voting behaviour is Rational Choice Model. It a Receny model that looks at short term factors which are more volatile in current situations. Parties cannot simply rely on the ideological support and the structure of society to win elections. The use of tackling issues, promises, manifesto and leaders are factors voters look out for while voting. Instrumental voting seems like the most effective method in determining the voting behaviour in the UK.
For example, in 1997, Blair's landslide victory was possible because he tackled the issues of jobs, health and education. All of which are areas where citizens feel the need for improvements. In conclusion, voting behaviour is widely spread across the UK. By using only one model to examine the trends and pattern is not going to be an accurate justification. Moreover, each model and theory has its limitations. Hence, the socio-economic background of voters will predominantly be important in accessing voting patterns followed by the two other models mentioned.