Some sociologists argue that voters are rational consumers as they weigh up the costs and benefits of their vote and make an informed decision. However, as Item A describes, some criticise this and argue that voters do not know or care enough about individual party policies, still vote along class lines, and are therefore not rational consumers. From the end of the Second World War up to the 1970s sociologists argue that there was clear class alignment in voting behaviour, with the working class voting for the left wing Labour party and the middle classes voting Conservative.
However, more recent studies have shown that class alignment is in decline and far more people vote on policy preference lines. Crewe argues that class alignment has decreased because the manual labour workforce has significantly declined over the last 30 years due to the closure of coal mines and steel foundries, meaning that many working class voters no longer identify with Labour policies. This is supported by the idea of embourgeoisement that argues classes are merging in terms of their lifestyle, attitude and voting behaviour.
Therefore, voters now look beyond class lines when choosing who to vote for, meaning they are rational consumers. McKenzie and Silver’s theory of secular voters also supports the rational voter thesis. They argue that voters, young people in particular, weigh up political policies, decide which will benefit their lives the most, and cast their vote accordingly. Goldthorpe and Lockwood’s view of instrumental voters also states that the electorate vote for the party that will bring them most gains, regardless of their social class.
Furthermore, in recent years there has been an increase in tactical voting. In 1997 and 2001, middle class voters used this political knowledge in constituencies where Labour was weak by tactically voting for the Liberal Democrats in order to prevent the Conservatives winning seats. Many political analysts argue that this behaviour suggests greater political literacy among the public – people are rational consumers as they are now more able to make informed judgements about parties, especially with respect to economic policy and its effect on their standard of living.
However, as Item A states, the rational voter thesis works on this basis that all voters are political literate, well informed and ‘have clear knowledge about specific party policies’. Foucualt argues that power comes from knowledge – therefore, in order to be a rational consumer clear knowledge is needed. However, some sociologists argue that many people are not informed or educated enough to be rational consumers. This argument is supported by the fact that, as it stands, politics is often overlooked on school’s curriculums – meaning British school students may be undereducated in politics and even how to vote.
President of the NASUWT teaching union, John Rimmer, argues that classes should be a compulsory requirement in the last two years of secondary school in order to combat the problem and create a more educated future electorate, leading to more voters becoming rational consumers. Due to this lack of education in schools people may take more notice of the media to inform them about political parties and policies. Item A highlights that ‘the rational voter thesis assumes that the media faithfully reflect the truth’, but this is certainly not always the case.
The media is often partisan. Throughout the 80s many British Newspapers were pro-Conservative, presenting Margaret Thatcher as a resolute, decisive and no-nonsense leader that would protect the national interest, comparing her to the divided Labour party filled with ‘left-wing loonies’. This kind of stereotypical portrayal is still prevalent today – key figures in the current Conservative party are subject to ‘inverted snobbery’ in the media due to their Eton educations and wealthy backgrounds.
The Hypodermic Syringe Model suggests that media audiences receive these messages and believe they are completely right. Therefore, this subjectivity in the media, therefore, makes it difficult to for voters to be rational consumers as the full picture of political parties can be difficult to see. In addition to this, some sociologists argue that the importance of social class has been underestimated in recent years. Marshall was critical of Crewe’s ideas, arguing that class de-alignment has been exaggerated.
Marshall’s studies suggest that class identity is still an influence on voter’s choice. This is supported by the trends in voting behaviour in the most recent UK general election. In 2010 39% of the AB class voted for Conservative, whilst 26% voted Labour. Furthermore, 40% of the lowest class voted Labour and 31% for Conservative. This shows that, whilst voters are clearly becoming more volatile, social class has not completely disappeared as a factor for influencing voter behaviour.
In conclusion, therefore, whilst sociologists such as McKenzie and Silver argue that voters are rational consumers as they cast their vote after determining who will bring them the most gains whilst in power. This is reinforced by Crewe’s theory of class alignment being in decline. However, the clear counter argument to this is that obstructions, such as poor political education in schools and biased views in the media, mean the majority of the electorate are not rational consumers as it is difficult to get a truly objective perspective.
Contrary to this entire debate, however, Item A argues that ‘a large proportion of the electorate simply doesn’t care about politics’. Voter apathy has become an increasing problem in the UK, evidenced by the dip in voter turnout in recent years which hit an all time low of 59% in 2001. Therefore, some would argue that many people are no longer consumers, rational or otherwise, when it comes to politics and voting.