An Extraordinary Electorate: Voting Behaviour and the 1997 British General Election

By Shaw, Jan | Contemporary Review, May 1998 | Go to article overview

An Extraordinary Electorate: Voting Behaviour and the 1997 British General Election


Shaw, Jan, Contemporary Review


Exactly one year ago, on May 1st 1997, Tony Blair's new Labour achieved an election victory of historic proportions. With a swing to Labour of 10.5 per cent, eighteen years of Conservative government were brought to an end and Labour gained only its third clear majority in the House of Commons. With 419 MPs, and a majority of 179, Labour won the greatest share of seats in the Party's history and the largest majority by any party since 1931. Conversely, this was a defeat of epic proportions for the Conservative Party. In 1997 the Conservatives lost four and a half million votes compared with 1992, the biggest electoral change this century. Achieving just 31.4 per cent of the total vote and 165 seats this was the party's worst performance since 1832! With no MPs in Scotland or Wales, and only eight from the major urban conurbations, the Conservative Party has little claim to be a credible national party.

That the Labour Party finally returned to power came as little surprise to all but the most sceptical of analysts. That it returned to power with such an extraordinary result few expected or predicted. Consequently analysing the behaviour of the British electorate in 1997 is by no means straightforward. Among the principal explanations of voting behaviour are: the Sociological Approach, the importance of Party Identification, and an approach that argues that voters, like consumers are driven by Rational Choice.

The Sociological Approach assumes that voting choices vary according to the social characteristics of the individual voter, and in general people vote for the party that best represents their interests. While such characteristics can include religious belief, gender, race, employment etc., for the most part this approach is associated with social class identification. The first major work on voting behaviour, Butler and Stokes' Political Change in Britain (1964), concluded that Britain functioned as a stable two-party system with the principal cleavage between non-manual workers and manual workers, the former voting Conservative and the latter, Labour.

However the three successive victories of the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher in 1979, 1983 and 1987. all on 43 per cent of the vote, combined with both the rapid decline of the Labour Party's fortunes and the re-emergence of Third Party voting appeared to have shattered this tenet of British voting behaviour. Indeed commentators such as Crewe, Dunleavy, Rose and McAllister argue that class-party linkages have declined, resulting in a process they call 'class dealignment'. To illustrate their conclusions most stress the fragmentation of the class structure that has taken place over the past three decades as a result firstly of industrial changes - the decline of the 'traditional' working class industries: mining, shipbuilding, steel and secondly of greater social mobility - the growth of skilled manual labour, and home-ownership resulting in a new affluent working class concentrated in the South and Southeast (The so called C2s that were famously 'won over' by Mrs. Thatcher in 1979). Such fragmentation results in all social classes and in particular the working class losing its social cohesion and ideological distinctiveness with the overall consequence that Britain has become less two-party and less two-class.

This conventional view provoked serious dissension in the academic literature, particularly in Heath, Jowell and Curtice's 1985 publication, How Britain Votes. The central argument the authors made was that while the overall socio-political context of the British electorate may have changed, there was little evidence to suggest that the sociological character of classes had. In other words, the authors argued that the declining fortunes of the Labour Party were not a result of class dealignment, but rather a result of the changing size of the respective classes. Consequently while the size of the working class as a whole had fallen due to socio-industrial changes this did not mean that it had lost any of its class consciousness.

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