Is Social Class Still the Most Important Determinant of Voting Behaviour in Contemporary Britain?

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“Is social class still the most important determinant of voting behaviour in contemporary British politics?”

Introduction

“The view that British society is divided into two primary classes is much more than a sociologist’s simplification; it seems to be deeply rooted in the mind of the ordinary British citizen.” (Butler and Stokes, 1969) If this statement were still applicable to today’s society, then it would establish social class as the most important factor of voting behaviour. The question is whether British society is still as clearly separated into two classes and whether the members of each class are still as aware of it as they seemed to be when the statement was made. Without rushing ahead, it can be stated here that social structure has changed over the last few decades and that class boundaries seem to have blurred. So what has the impact on the people as the electorate been and how have the main parties reacted to the changes? The discussion of these questions will start with a definition of class, which seems vital in order to have a clear idea about how class and party allegiances are linked. Subsequently, different theories of voting behaviour will be briefly discussed, followed by an examination of the connection between sociological and political factors determining class dealignment, so as to finally come to a conclusion whether class is still relevant to voting choice and to what extent.

Defining social class

“class is the basis of British party politics; all else is embellishment and detail” (Pulzer, 1967) A considerable amount of psephological study[1] has focused on the link between class and party allegiance. However, the concept of class is a heavily contested one and has been the subject of much argument amongst political scientists. Marxists see society divided by major economic and social factors, resulting in a two-class model: the bourgeoisie, owning the means of production in a capitalist system, and the proletariat who are property-less and have nothing to sell other than their labour power - to the economically and politically dominant bourgeoisie. Max Weber employs a similar model, albeit stressing the difference of life chances resulting from the position in the labour market (rather than in the production process, as Marxists do). Weber’s model seems more relevant to contemporary society and therefore serves as a guideline to the ‘social grade’ scheme adopted by the British Market Research Society (BMRS) that most researchers and opinion polls have been relying upon. This scheme considers occupation and lifestyle as the main dividing factors in society and concludes six categories that can without difficulty be used to separate people into manual (working class) and non-manual (middle class) workers.

Social class categories (BMRS) (%)
ABProfessional, managerial, administrative (upper) middle15 C1Other non-manuallower middle24
C2Skilled manualupper working class31
DSemi-skilled/unskilledworking class18
EOn state benefitworking class 2
Source: Kavanagh (2001); Dearlove and Saunders (2000)

This model, employed by Butler and Stokes, the pioneers of British psephology[2], has attracted much critique from Heath et al. who consider the classification into manual and non-manual workers as “wholly inadequate for studying the social bases of politics since it ignores important divisions which have little to do with the colour of a man’s or woman’s collar” (Heath et al., 1985). Instead, the stress should be put on employment conditions – that is, the grade of autonomy and authority at the workplace – which create different economic interests and values. This classification is revolutionary insofar as it shows that economic interests can cross traditional class boundaries: a self-employed manual worker will have the same interest in free enterprise and limited governmental intervention as a non-manual self-employed worker. That, of course, has...
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