7 voting behaviour


Party choice and parental voting history



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Party choice and parental voting history


Perhaps the most primitive source of party choice is inherited from a voter’s parents. Political scientists tend to see predispositions to vote for particular parties in terms of what they call ‘party identification’. This is regarded as a kind of psychological ‘closeness’ to a given party, built up as the result of a process of political socialisation that begins in early childhood in the family home. Ever since the Civil War, discussions of Irish politics have been replete with discussions of ‘Fianna Fáil families’ or even ‘dynasties’, ‘Fine Gael families’, and the like. Thus voters coming from ‘Fianna Fáil families’ are seen as being more likely to identify with and subsequently vote for Fianna Fáil, for example, and it is clearly an important matter to explore systematically the link between party choice and parental voting history.

Now that we finally have access to a full-scale election study in Ireland, anecdotal evidence about the impact of family political background on the voting choices of children in later life can be checked more systematically. INES respondents were asked ‘when you were growing up’ which party did your father and mother ‘usually vote for’. From the answers to these questions it is easy to identify, at least for the two main Irish parties, respondents who recalled having two Fianna Fáil (or Fine Gael) parents, one, or none. Respondents were also asked which political party, if any, they now felt ‘close to’. In contrast to voters in many other countries, only about 25 per cent of respondents said that they felt ‘close’ to some party. The data confirm strongly that, for these people, feeling close to a party was strongly related to the choice of first preference party. Of those feeling close to Fianna Fáil, for example, 90 per cent voted for Fianna Fáil, while 83 per cent of those who felt close to Fine Gael voted for Fine Gael.

Table 7.2 explores, for Fianna Fáil voters, the relationship between family political background, ‘closeness’ to a party, and voting behaviour. The top panel confirms strongly that, when both parents supported Fianna Fáil, 86 per cent of respondents felt close to Fianna Fáil. In contrast, when neither parent supported Fianna Fáil, only 30 per cent of respondents felt close to Fianna Fáil. The top panel of table 7.3 shows an even more striking pattern for Fine Gael. When both parents supported Fine Gael, 75 per cent of respondents felt close to Fine Gael; when neither parent supported Fine Gael, a mere 8 per cent felt close to Fine Gael. For both of the main parties, therefore, and spectacularly so for Fine Gael, feelings of closeness to the party show a strong tendency to be inherited from parents.

[tables 7.2 and 7.3 about here]

The bottom panels of table 7.2 and 7.3 show a strong relationship between the actual voting behaviour of voters and that of their parents. Respondents were twice as likely to support Fianna Fáil (64 as opposed to 32 per cent), if both rather than neither of their parents supported Fianna Fáil. Even more strikingly, respondents were four times more likely to support Fine Gael (54 as opposed to 13 per cent) if both rather than neither of their parents supported the party. Having a parent who supported the party seems to be much more of a prerequisite for a Fine Gael vote than having a Fianna Fáil parent is a prerequisite for supporting Fianna Fáil.

The data used to produce tables 7.2 and 7.3 help us unravel the sequence of events leading from a person’s family political background in Ireland to actual voting behaviour. We already know that a feeling of ‘closeness’ to a party is a very good predictor of voting choice, and from the top panels of tables 7.2 and 7.3 that family political history is a very good predictor of feelings of closeness to a party. To take the analysis further: 80 per cent of those saying they felt close to Fianna Fáil voted for Fianna Fáil, even when neither parent had voted Fianna Fáil. When both parents had voted for Fianna Fáil, 88 per cent of those close to Fianna Fáil then voted for this party. The corresponding figures for Fine Gael show that 74 per cent of those close to Fine Gael voted for Fine Gael even when no parent had voted for Fine Gael, while 87 per cent did so when both parents had voted for Fine Gael.

There appear to be two things going on here. First, feeling ‘close’ to a party is such a strong predictor of voting for it, regardless of anything else, that many Irish respondents may simply be describing their voting behaviour when they talk of being ‘close’ to a party. Whatever its source, this sense of general party attachment, while felt only by about 25 per cent of INES respondents, is a potent predictor of voting behaviour. The political complexion of the parental home is, furthermore, a potent predictor of party attachment – and therefore of subsequent voting behaviour. Even among those who do feel close to some political party, the likelihood of voting for that party increases when both parent also supported the same party.

As always, we have to be alert to problems of cause and effect. The patterns in tables 7.2 and 7.3 do not imply that having parents who supported some party is the reason why children tend to support the same party. Equally plausible is that there is rather little social mobility in the world, and that people who find themselves in the same social situations, as parents and children tend to do, tend to vote in the same way. Nonetheless, the Irish political folklore that voting runs in families is indeed borne out in a very systematic way by the results of the 2002 election study.


Party choice and social background


Irish voting behaviour is affected by much more than family background. Turning to the social demographics of party support in Ireland, for example, strong patterns do emerge. This is not surprising; notwithstanding the ‘politics without social bases’ tag that has been applied to divisions between Irish parties, small but significant differences between the parties have for long been recognised. This may be seen in the first instance in those characteristics, such as occupation, that are closely related to social class. Thus, the INES showed that …
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In terms of household income, the poorest supporters on average were those of Fianna Fáil, followed by those of Sinn Féin, Fine Gael and Labour, in that order. The party with the richest supporters on average was the Greens. Exactly the same pattern could be seen with educational attainment. The least well-educated supporters, on average, were those of Fianna Fáil, and the parties were rank ordered, in terms of the average educational attainment of their supporters, in exactly the same way as for income.

In addition, age distinguishes supporters of different groups of parties quite sharply. The INES suggests that the party with the oldest supporters in 2002 was Fine Gael; on average, Fine Gael supporters were born in mid-1954 and were thus 48 at the time of the election. Progressive Democrat supporters were on average a mere six months younger; Fianna Fáil supporters were about a year younger. This is in stark contrast with supporters of Sinn Féin (who on average were born in 1966), and the Greens (1967). The ‘youthful’ image of these two parties, as portrayed in media coverage of the election campaign, was thus justified. Green Party supporters were on average a full 13 years younger than supporters of Fine Gael. Labour fell right between these two poles, with Labour supporters born on average in 1960 and thus being about 42 at the time of the election.

There were some gender differences in party support, though these were not large. Standing out as the most ‘male’ party was Sinn Féin, 58 per cent of whose supporters were men, while the most ‘female’ party was the Greens, only 45 per cent of whose supporters were men. There was relatively little gender patterning of support for the other parties.

One background factor that is very strongly related to party choice concerns where voters lived. Election results are published at the level of Dáil constituencies, and one benefit of the 2002 election study is that the residence of voters was much more precisely classified. This can be defined according to whether the voter lived in open countryside, in a village or small town (of less than 10,000 people), in a larger town (of over 10,000 people), in one of the main Irish cities other than Dublin, in Dublin City (including Dun Laoghaire), or in the increasingly sprawling commuter belt of County Dublin – which in many ways represents the culmination of the process of ‘urbanisation’ that we have been seeing in Ireland in recent years. Table 7.4 breaks down party supporters in these terms and shows some striking patterns. Reading the columns of this table from left to right, we are in effect passing from ‘traditional’ to ‘modern’ Ireland, from people living in open countryside to those for the most part living in the new suburbs of the Dublin commuter belt. The level of Fianna Fáil support declines steadily as we move in this direction, while the level of Fine Gael support is three times higher among people living in open countryside than among those living in Greater Dublin. Combining support for the two traditional ‘civil war’ parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, this drops from 76 of all people living in open countryside to a mere 44 per cent in County Dublin. Indeed in county Dublin, the combined total of the civil war parties was less than the combined 47 per cent won by the ‘radical’ parties challenging them – Labour, Greens, Sinn Féin and ‘others’ (the latter in the Dublin area almost exclusively comprising small parties of the radical left – Socialist Party, Workers’ Party and Socialist Workers’ Party). These more radical parties garnered negligible support among people living in open countryside. Table 7.4 thus paints a clear picture of what many might se as the growing rural-urban divide in Irish politics. The implications for the future arise because patterns of migration are having the effect that rural populations are declining inexorably, with urban, and especially suburban, populations growing at an explosive rate. On the evidence of table 7.4, this pattern of social change does seem to be a potential engine of change in Irish party politics.

[table 7.4 about here]


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