Social Class and Voting: A Multi-Level Analysis of Individual And Constituency Differences

Social Class and Voting:
A Multi-Level Analysis of Individual
And Constituency Differences
  By Robert Andersen and Anthony Heath

This paper extends previous work on the changing importance of individual and contextual social class in Britain. We adopt a multilevel framework for analysis, linking surveys from the 1964-97 British Election Studies with Census data on the social class composition of constituencies. The goal of the paper is to test whether, net of individual social class effects, the social class composition of the constituency in which the voter lives has declined in importance over time. We found that contextual class effects were consistently significant and fairly constant throughout the period under study. We also find a gradual increase in the amount of constituency variation in vote. Although the proportion of this variation explained by contextual and individual social class has remained fairly constant for Conservative vote, it has decreased for Labour vote. Ultimately, we find evidence of a decline in class voting, but no evidence of a growth in the individualism of voters.

There has been considerable interest in the changing pattern of class voting in western democracies (see, for example, the volume edited by Evans, 1999). A number of writers argue that there has been a long-term process of ‘class dealignment’ with social classes becoming increasingly similar in their voting patterns (Sarlvik and Crewe, 1983; Franklin, 1985a, 1985b; Clark and Lipset, 1991; Nieuwbeerta and De Graaf, 1999). Others have argued that the pattern is merely one of “trendless fluctuation” (Heath et al., 1985, 1991; Weakliem, 1989; see also Hout et al.,1993).  The most recent research has shown that class voting fell to a low level in Great Britain in 1997 when the Labour Party moved towards the centre of the political spectrum (Evans et al., 1999;  Heath et  al., 2001). Despite debate over whether observed changes in class voting are generated by long-run social processes or by short-term political events, there is general agreement that class voting still persists to some degree in Britain.
Although interest in the effects of the social milieu on voting is not new (see, for example, Butler and Stokes, 1974; Rasmussen, 1973; Miller 1977; Bodman, 1983; Kelley and McAllister, 1985; Huckfeldt and Sprague, 1987; MacKuen and Brown, 1987; Harrop et al., 1992; Pattie and Johnston, 1999; Johnston et. al, 2000), it has rarely been integrated within the study of class voting.  Most studies have taken an individualistic approach to the question of trends in class voting, looking at the changing relationship between an individual’s class membership and his or her vote. However, the sociological theories upon which the basic theory of social cleavages rests emphasize the role of social processes, in particular the development of class-based communities which generatesocial pressures on individuals to support a particular party (Berelson et al., 1954; Lipset and Rokkan, 1967; Parkin 1967; Butler and Stokes 1974). These theories assume that the individual voting decision is not simply a consequence of the individual’s own class characteristics but is also dependent on the class positions of the people with whom that individual associates. 
According to Hauser (1974) contextual effects are systematic differences in individual behaviour across environments that cannot be accounted for by explanations in terms of individual characteristics. In other words, “a contextual effect is any effect on individual behaviour that arises due to social interaction within an environment” (Huckfeldt and Sprague, 1995, 11). The basic premise of how this applies to class relations is well outlined by Miller (1977):
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 argues that contextual effects are generally consensual whether or not people’s social contacts are similar to themselves in their social class positions. That is to say, people will tend to be influenced towards political agreement with their social contacts.  Following this argument, we would expect to find tendencies towards class voting to be reinforced among voters who regularly associate with others from the same social class. On the other hand, we would expect to find the tendency towards class voting to beundermined among voters who frequently interact with people from other social classes since the interaction will tend to move them towards agreement with the other social classes (cf Goldthorpe et al., 1968). Simply put, the more that people interact with members of other social classes, the weaker we expect class voting to be. 
Przeworski and Soares (1971) also argue that the contextual effects are consensual on the working class. They differ from Miller, however, in arguing that, under certain circumstances, contextual effects may be reactive on other classes. For example, areas with a high proportion of working class inhabitants may influence people in other classes to become more conscious of their own class position and interests and this in turn may lead to voting against left-leaning parties.  This suggests that there will be an interaction between individual class, contextual social class, and voting behaviour; that is, the influence of contextual social class will differ in the case of middle-class and of working-class individuals.
It is plausible that locally-based communities may be strongest for the working class (see, for example, Parkin, 1967). Professional and managerial careers typically involve greater geographical mobility and lead to the development of looser-knit and geographically wider-ranging social networks than do manual careers. Such looser networks may well be less effective in developing strong community sanctions in favour of a particular party, even if the network is composed of people from the same social class. If working class people are indeed involved in denser social networks, then this might tend to magnify the role of social environment on their voting behaviour, while the looser networks of the middle class might tend to permit a more individualistic pattern of voting behaviour.  ..........