Talking Together and Voting Together
In the preceding chapters, we discussed the neighbourhood effect in some detail. Voters do seem to pay attention to local cues when deciding how—and even whether—to vote. However, the exact nature of those cues remains to be examined. Thus far, we have shown aggregate patterns that are consistent with geographical influences. Voters in the same sorts of places tend to vote in the same sorts of ways. But how does context influence voters? In pre-reform nineteenth-century elections, the answer could be crude and simple—coercion. Where votes were cast in public, in full view of other voters, there was a risk that individual voters would vote against their true views in order to comply with local majority (or locally socially powerful) opinion. In some cases, too, direct vote buying was possible: support a successful candidate and he could provide one with goods and services. Hence, geographical variations in voting could have resulted from direct social or economic pressure.
But the introduction of the secret ballot to Britain in 1872 changed that. It was no longer possible for candidates to force compliance. Voters can now, if they wish, dissemble to their fellows, claiming to support a party other than their true preference for the sake of a quiet life, knowing that, once in the privacy of the polling booth, they can vote their sincere preferences. If my friends are convinced Conservatives while I am not, I may feel pressure to agree with them in public. But they may not know I vote Labour. That can be my secret. Why, therefore, should voters be subject to the pressures of their local environments? It is very unlikely that voters 'catch' the locally dominant view by rubbing shoulders in the street (Dunleavy, 1979). We need, therefore, to demonstrate not only end-results that are compatible with contextual effects, but also the mechanisms by which contextual effects operate. It is that task to which we turn in this and subsequent chapters. We begin in this chapter by considering whether people's voting decisions are in part a function of the contexts in which they live. In particular, are they influenced by the opinions of those they talk to?
This question formed the core of a pioneering study of electoral behaviour in the USA—Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet's (1944) analysis of the impact