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POLITICAL SOCIOLOGY CLASS
Are political parties mainly responsible for any changes in the relationship between social class and vote choice?
Introduction How do we define social class?
How have patterns of class voting behaviour changed - Europe and America Class changes drive party changes Party changes drive class changes Class issues vs moral issues Declining importance of class Conclusion The European Voter - A Comparative Study of Modern Democracies: J. Thomassen
- Thomassen examines time-series data to help explain changes in the behaviour of European voters over the second half of the twentieth century.
- In the 1960s Kirchheimer developed an argument along the lines that, under secular and consumerist conditions, where the lines between classes a blurred, former class and denominational parties are becoming catch-all people's parties 1.
- Social cleavages, particularly class and religion, are becoming less important for party choice. This conclusion is not uncontested, but it is backed by quantitative evidence (Dalton, 1984).
- Party identification seems less important to European voters than American.
- Shively has argued that weak ties to political parties in post-war Europe were the result of strong voter identification with class or religion; voters will simply support the party which best represents their social milieu.
- Inter-generational differences, particularly relating to changing economic circumstance, have a significant impact on voter attitudes.
- Some studies have argued that the left-right ideological orientation of voters, the major determinant of voting preference, is no longer strongly linked to socio-economics. In nations such as the Netherlands, there is no link at all 2.
- Social structure and party choice:
- Social cleavage studies of voter choice have always concluded that working-class voters tend to support leftist parties, with middle-class voters allying with parties on the centre or right. Does this assumption still hold?
- Germany and the Netherlands retain cleavages along both class and religious lines, and this is reflected in their political parties. Britain and the Scandinavian nations are dominated by class cleavages. However, Norway and Sweden showed a considerable drop in class-based voting over the period 1965-1997.
- In the Netherlands, religion-based voting has always been more significant than classbased, and the gap between the two grew larger during the 30 years to 1997 3.
1 The European Voter - A Comparative Study of Modern Democracies: J. Thomassen 2 The European Voter - A Comparative Study of Modern Democracies: J. Thomassen 3 The European Voter - A Comparative Study of Modern Democracies: J. Thomassen
- Introduction of the universal franchised encouraged class to replace religion as the main political cleavage, and this was evident in Britain after 1918.
- Lipset and Rokkan's 'Social Cleavage' model relies on assessment of the correlation between group membership and party choice, the social composition of the electorate, and the party appeal of the cleavage based parties.
- Are changes in voting behavior the result of modernisation or politics?
- Modernisation theory posits that relatively stable variables such as class and religion are, over time, increasingly influenced by short-term factors; it also predicts a decline in turnout as voters make the choice to vote or not on the basis of instrumental orientations.
- Has turnout actually declined? Whilst turnout generally fell across European nations in the 1990s, there is no clear secular trend, and turnout actually rose slightly in Germany and the Netherlands. Education was found to be positively correlated to turnout, further undermining this aspect of modernisation theory.
- The growth of mass-media, improved education, and economic autonomy has bred increasingly sophisticated voters. The existence of politically astute citizens undermines the relationship between social structure and party choice; lifetime loyalty to one party is no longer to be assumed.
- The alternative theory is that changes in the political-institutional context, both between nations and between elections within a single nation, are the principle determinants of voting behavior.
- The emergence of systems of proportional representation in European nations caused immediate shifts in voting patterns and party representation; in Britain, the plurality system influence voter choice and prevents vote share being reflected in political representation.
- Thomassen found no evidence of a secular rise in the impact of short-term factors; 'issues' have been, and remain, of significance to voters. He also found no rise in the strength of voters' responsiveness to popular political leaders; they have remained consistently more likely to vote for parties whose leaders they favour.
- Shrinking of both the traditional working-class and religious observance was found, as expected, to result in a drop in the political significance of these cleavages.
- Political behavior was found to be primarily influenced by the supply side of politics rather than social change. If parties are difficult to differentiate between, as has become increasingly the case, it is of no surprise that there is a low correlation between voter policy preference and party choice4. Rationality and Society: Weakliem & Heath
- Lipset called class-based support for parties of the left or right a matter of simple economic self-interest. However, class is not is not perfectly correlated with vote; there must be other factors at work.
- Income and class have become disconnected in some cases.
- Weakliem and Heath collected data from the 1987 British Electoral Survey, distinguishing between respondents using a seven grade class scale. The class scale used was correlated to income; as we move up the scale the percentage of respondents' unemployed falls and the percentage with an occupational pension rises 5.
- The self-employed and the highest professional class were found to be the most conservative, giving the Conservative party over 60% of their support; yet, even among these groups, there was 11-17% support for the Labour party. 4 The European Voter - A Comparative Study of Modern Democracies: J. Thomassen 5 Rationality and Society: Weakliem & Heath
- The poorest working-class group gave 49% support to Labour, but still maintained 30%
support for the Conservative party.
- Across the classes, there is substantial variation in voter perception of parties' policy positions. Moreover, voters respond not only to the likelihood that a party will help them, but also whether they will help another class at their expense.
- Labour's success in the late 1980s depended on specifically targeting the votes of the working-class. The Conservatives relied on the support of both classes, and both parties had to temper language and policy accordingly.
- This study found that class still has a substantial impact on party choice in Britain, even after variations in attitude and income are controlled for 6. The Changing Shape of Class Voting - European Societies 2008: D. Oesch
- There have emerged different conceptions of what constitutes 'class' voting. Further, past class models do not adequately represent social strata in modern Europe. Oesch's paper argues that class-voting remains, but class cleavages have become more complex and difficult to measure7. Any study of cleavages needs to account for both the demand and supply of politics.
- Oesch describes the party preferences of voters as the 'structural context of mobilisation'.
- Class cleavages have both economic and cultural elements.
- Education was found to have a very different impact on the support for conservative parties than leftist ones. Individuals with a degree are considerably more likely to vote for a party of the left than those with secondary schooling alone; this ranges from 1.4 times more likely in Britain to 3.3 times in Germany8. In part, this can be accounted for by the disproportionate number of graduates employed in swelling state employers.
- Low skilled workers tend to give greater support to the populist Right than would be expected of their class, just as liberal professional (outside managerial roles) give support to parties of the Left. How Parties Shape Class Politics - BJPS: Evans & Tilley
- Class divisions in politics are affected by changes in class structures and by party ideological responses to perceived voter preferences. Tilley and Evans use survey data from 1959-2006 to test the thesis that the decline in class-based voting is principally the result of the ideological convergence of Britain's main parties 9. They classify class using the Erikson-Goldthorpe seven strata schema.
- The traditional assumption of political parties is that they are shaped from the 'bottom-up' by cleavages amongst the electorate.
- The political choice model contends that class-party association changes in response to shifts in the left-right ideology of the two main parties.
- New Labour was the result of four consecutive general election defeats for the Labour party, an acknowledgement that the preferences of the electorate had shifted, but the party had not moved with them.
6 Rationality and Society: Weakliem & Heath 7 The Changing Shape of Class Voting - European Societies 2008: D. Oesch 8 The Changing Shape of Class Voting - European Societies 2008: D. Oesch 9 How Parties Shape Class Politics - BJPS 42: Tilley & Evans
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