Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The voting slip: democracy in action?

Did you bother to visit the polling station last Election Day? And what led you to tick the box next to your favourite candidate? Dr Ben Clements looks at the complex set of motivations behind our voting habits.

In the 1950s, around four-fifths of the British electorate voted in the general elections. This was a golden-age in terms of voting; the vast majority of the electorate cared about politics enough to visit a polling station and cast their vote. However, in 2010, Britain’s last general election, only 65% of the population voted. Fewer and fewer people have been voting at recent elections, and those who do are often swayed by factors other than manifestos and party differences in policy detail.

Historically, those more likely to cast a vote at election time are older and wealthier than those who choose not to. They are more engaged in the world of politics and perhaps feel they have more of a stake in the issues at hand.

Typically, those who choose not to vote are younger, less well-off and often from minority groups. They may feel disengaged from politics and believe that their vote won’t count. Others are simply uninterested; they’re getting on with their lives and don’t have the time or willingness to take an interest.

The ideal citizen would read party manifestos, and make an informed decision as to which one’s policies will genuinely benefit this country. However, the majority of voters do not do and reply on other factors instead to help make their decision. Increasingly nowadays, ‘issues, issues, issues’ are thought to decide elections, most prominently the state of the economy and public services. At the Department of Politics and International Relations, we undertake research in to these factors that shape how people vote in a more electorally volatile, multi-party Britain.

Party leaders for example make a lot of difference in contemporary politics. They are often centre-stage in election campaigns and are the public face of their parties. And the media can certainly play a part in influencing people to vote for a particular party, particularly Britain’s national newspapers. Because people don’t have the time or the willingness to read party manifestos, they tend to rely on the media – both traditional and newer sources – for political information. The media can also provide the much-needed ‘oxygen of publicity’ for smaller protest parties.

Just as there are a number of different parties, there are also different types of voters. Party-identifiers are those who generally have been loyal to a particular party for the entirety of their lives. They vote based on tribal loyalties, often transmitted through parental influence and the local community in which they were socialised. A floating voter on the other hand is someone who doesn’t hold an allegiance to a particular party and can therefore be swayed to vote for a certain party by various factors. In post-war Britain, we have moved from a more socially-anchored and loyal electorate to one characterised by greater volatility and political consumerism.

Will you be filling in a voting slip at the next general election, in May 2015? And what will influence you to place your X in a certain box?

Dr Ben Clements

Research interests

  • Public opinion towards the EU and foreign policy issues
  • Public opinion on environmental issues
  • The impact of religion on political behaviour and social attitudes in Britain
  • Religious issues in British politics

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