Social class can be termed as an unofficial grading of people in a society based on their earnings, profession, schooling, residence, among other factors.
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Diverse cultures however, vary according to social class, owing to various societal aspects. Britain was at one point in time a class-ruled society. Class was an affixed part of the people’s lifestyle. Today, multiculturalism and a shifting financial system are steadily wearing down the prevalent class system. Over the years, one area where the influence of social class has been felt in Britain is in the area of voting behaviour.
When we talk of voting behaviour one is simply talking of the way or manner in which people tend to vote. If the voting patterns in Britain are analyzed, one will notice that social class is the most significant reason in the way people traditionally voted in the 20th century. In short, people tend to vote according to their existing class. However, the class de-alignment that was experienced in the dying years of the 20th century greatly altered the voting patterns in Britain. (British Broadcasting Corporation)
Unlike the United States where social class merely refers to capitalism, the term means different things in the West. When talking of class in Britain, one might be talking of the upper class people or the middle class people in the society. Additionally, the term might be used to refer to the upper working class, the lower working class or even the temporary workers in the society.
Towards the middle of the 20th century, a large number of voters in Britain were associated with one of the two major political parties. Although the whole population cannot be said to have followed this trend, a close analysis shows that people in a social cleavages tended to vote in a certain way.
In fact, people in the upper working class and lower working class tended to vote for the Labour Party while people in the middle class mostly voted for the Conservative Party. In the mid 20th century, the middle class, upper working class and the lower working class accounted for close to 64% of the total votes received by the Labor Party. This pattern of voting shows that the social class was a good indicator of twentieth-century voting patterns in Britain. (British Broadcasting Corporation)
Naturally, there has been extensive attention in the changing patterns of class voting in Britain. Several writers argue that there has been a continuous process of class dealignment, which has seen all social classes begin voting in the same pattern. (Franklin 24) In fact, recent research shows that class voting reached an all time low in the 1997 elections when the Labour Party approached the heart of the political continuum. (Evans 43)
Although attention on the effects of the social environment on voting is not something new, it has rarely been incorporated within the context of class voting. Most studies done on the matter have taken an idiosyncratic advance to the issue of tendencies in class voting, examining the shifting affiliation between a person’s class membership and his vote.
However, the sociological premises upon which the fundamental presumption of social grouping rests highlight the function of social processes, in particular the creation of class-based communities which produce social strains on folks to throw their weight behind a certain party. These theories presume that the individual voting decision is not merely a result of the person’s own class characters but it also relies on the class positions of the individual’s associates. (Evans 50)
According to Hauser (1974), “contextual effects” are methodical variations in individual behavior across backgrounds that cannot be accounted for by explanations in terms of personal distinctiveness. In layman’s language, what Hauser is simply saying is that contextual effect is any upshot on personal behavior that arises due to social relations within an environment. (Hauser 374)Perhaps, Hauser’s claim can well be understood if examined in light of Miller (1977) who claims that;
If Mr A and Mr B have similar social characteristics but Mr A lives in an area where the middle class form twice as large a fraction of the local population as in the area where Mr B lives, then Mr A is likely to have more middle-class contacts than Mr B even if he is unlikely to have twice as many. Thus, Mr A’s contact group will be biased towards the middle class compared with Mr B’s contact group. (Miller 259)
According to Miller, Contextual effects are usually consensual regardless of whether people’s social contacts are comparable to themselves in their social class positions or not. This means that people tend to be inclined towards political harmony with their social contacts. Subsequent to this explanation, we would expect to find predispositions towards class voting to be resistant among electorate who frequently associate with people from the same social class.
Alternatively, we would expect to find the inclination towards class voting to be destabilized among voters who regularly interact with people from different social classes since the association would be inclined to alter their opinion to conform to that of the other social classes. This simply means that class voting is weakened as people begin to interact with members of other social classes. (Franklin 30)
Apart from Miller’s observations, Przeworski and Soares (1971) agree contextual effects are consensual on the working class but differ with him by observing that contextual effects may be reactive on other classes under certain circumstances. An example of this is where an area with a high ratio of voting class may exert pressure on people in other classes to become more cognizant of their own class wellbeing and this in effect may lead to voting against parties that are perceived as not being on their side.
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This suggests that there will definitely be an association between personal class, contextual social class, and voting performance. I.e. the influence of related social class will differ in the situation of middle-class and of individuals in the working class. (Przeworski & Soares 53)
It is reasonable that neighboring communities may provide a strong link for the working class. Specialized and management careers naturally involve better geological mobility thus resulting to the creation of looser-knit and geographically wider-ranging systems than do blue-collar careers.
Indeed such weak networks may not be effective in mounting strong community endorsements in support of a particular party, even if the association is comprised of people from the same social class. If people who are working are indeed involved in thicker social networks, then this might tend to amplify the role of social environment on their voting behaviour, while the looser networks of the middle class might seem to allow a more self-centered pattern of voting behaviour. (Parkin 280)
In the first eight decades of the 20th century, political analysts believed that political alignments reflected social groupings. According to analysts, the British political party model of government is shaped in such a way that political parties endeavor to win office by contending for the vote of the masses on the foundation of established policies.
Most voters in Britain are believed to be lucid and tend to vote for the parties that serve their interests. This clearly explains the reason why people tend to support a particular party without considering its policies.
According to analysts, this has made the behaviour of the British voter predictable since it is a universal affair. This idea of party image is what made most commentators believe that Britain before the 1970s was characterized by class voting. Indeed, this observation is not shocking at all considering that a party like Labour, which is one of the major political parties in Britain, was formed on the precipice of social class, and drew its strength from the trade union movement.
It is therefore correct to conclude that the sociological model of voting behaviour witnessed in Britain has more to do with social class. As mentioned earlier in this paper, working class voters tend to vote for the Labour Party while the Middle class are more inclined to the conservative party. (Miller 264)
By the 1970s, there occurred what analysts called class dealignment, which was a scenario where people stopped voting according to their existing class. In 1979, statistics showed that only 57% of British citizens voted according to their class affiliations confirming that people from the same social cleavages were desisting from voting in a particular manner as they had done in the past.
One explanation for this apparent class dealignment was that voters were becoming more educated due to the spread of the media, which had given them more information on politicians and their affiliated parties. According to commentators, the 1980s and early 1990s ushered a new era where lower working citizens shifted their allegiance from the Labour Party to the Conservative Party.
In the 1987 elections, statistics showed that the lower working class accounted for 42% of the total votes received by the Conservative party and only 35% threw their weight behind the Labour party. This was a complete break from previous elections where the lower working class had accounted for almost 70% of the votes accrued by the Labour party. (British Broadcasting Corporation)
Apart from the contribution of the media, class dealignment could also have risen due to alteration in the magnitude of the classes. In the 1970s, the number of manual workers fell to an all time low of 30% thus drastically reducing the influence of people in that particular social class.
Although it is apparent that voters are abandoning their natural classes, the phenomenon is not entirely dead. In the 2001 elections, the upper and middle classes who form the highest social class in Britain are believed to have voted largely for the Conservative party.
Although their vote signified a drop of 40% compared to previous elections, it was still a strong vote in its own standards. Despite this observation, it is apparent to any keen eye that the ongoing class dealignment is largely changing the voting behaviour in Britain especially in the 21st century. (British Broadcasting Corporation)
A widely progressed explanation for class dealignment is the steady attrition of class-based communities and an increasing personalization of the voter. This increasing individualism of the British electorate can be linked to the reduction of conventional heavy industries and the allied decline of one-industry communities congregated on mining or other related activities.
Additionally, this can be linked to a decline of local associations and improved opportunities for individual choices about daily life and spare time opportunities. On top of this, there has also been a noticeable growth of new forms of communication leading to feeble and more disseminated patterns of individual communication and a reduced reliance on in the neighborhood-based systems of support.
Unlike in the past, people have taken a very different view of class and most of them do not rely on social identity and action to define them but they have instead taken a more individualistic nature. This has totally changed the people’s view on class and has been manifested in their voting behaviour. (Parkin 290)
For a long time, social class has been used to group people in Western democracies. In most cases, these social cleavages dictated how people conducted their lives in Britain. In the 20th century, social class was largely used to predict the voting behaviour for people in a certain class.
However, this trend began to change towards the end of the 20th century in what commentators called class dealignment. At the start of the 21st century, there was a paradigm shift and only a small fraction of people voted according to their class affiliation. This was attributed to the media, which had largely presented politicians and their political parties in to light thus changing people’s perception about them.
British Broadcasting Corporation. Voting Behaviour, n.d. Web. <https://www.bbc.com/bitesize/guides/zd9bd6f/revision/1>
Evans, Geoffrey. The End of Class Politics? Class Voting in Comparative Context, 1999. Oxford, 43-52. Print.
Franklin, Mark. The Decline of Class Voting in Britain: Changes in the Basis of Electoral Choice, 1964-1993, 1985. Oxford University Press, 23-59. Print.
Hauser, Michael. “Contextual Analysis Revisited.” Sociological Methods and Research, 2 .1 (1974): 365-375. Print.
Miller, Lewis. “Social Class and Party Choice in England: A New Analysis.” British Journal of Political Science, 8.3, (1978): 257-284. Print.
Parkin, Francis. “Working Class Conservatives: a theory of political deviance.” British Journal of Sociology, 18.6 (1967), 278-290. Print.
Przeworski, Arthur, and Soares, Daniel. “Theories in Search of a Curve: A Contextual Interpretation of the Left Vote.” American Political Science Review, 65.7 (1971): 51-68. Print.