7 voting behaviour

Party choice and social behaviour

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Party choice and social behaviour

Voting behaviour is also often associated with various forms of social behaviour that reflect how voters see their lives. Five key aspects of this were measured by the INES: church attendance, membership of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), trade union membership, whether people worked in the public or private sector, and whether they were self-employed. None of the conventional ‘economic’ behavioural traits – trade union membership, self-employment or public sector employment – was strongly related to voting behaviour. However, the patterns in relation to church attendance and GAA membership were much more striking.

Table 7.5 shows levels of party support broken down by the frequency with which survey respondents claimed to go to church. The patterns are as strong as, and very similar to, those deriving from where people live. The level of Fianna Fáil support declines steadily as the voter’s rate of church attendance goes down. The same pattern holds for Fine Gael. Thus the combined level of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael support is about 75 per cent among those who go to church one a week or more, and goes down to 43 per cent among those who never go to church; the latter total less than the combined level of support for Labour, Greens, Sinn Féin and others.

[table 7.5 about here]

We can summarise and distil a lot of the information described above by constructing two stereotypical Irish voters. One is a ‘traditional’ Irish voter. He or she lives in open countryside, a village or a small town, goes to church several times or more a month and belongs to the GAA. The other is a ‘modern’ Irish voter, living in the Greater Dublin area, going to church once a year or less, and not belonging to the GAA. About nine per cent of the respondents in the INES fit the ‘traditional’ stereotype; about six per cent fit the ‘modern’ stereotype. Table 7.6 compares the voting behaviour of these two types of voter and is highly instructive. Among ‘traditional’ Irish voters, 80 per cent support one of the two ‘civil war’ parties. After this they are most likely to support some local independent candidate. The combined level of support for the more radical parties is a mere eight per cent among ‘traditional’ voters, who are thus ten times more likely to support a civil war party than a more radical alternative. Among ‘modern’ Irish voters, the combined support total of the civil war parties slumps to 38 per cent, while the combined support total of more radical alternatives rises to 51 per cent. Thus the ratio of support for ‘traditional’ versus radical parties among traditional voters is 80:8; for ‘modern’ voters it is 38:51. This is a very strong pattern indeed.

[table 7.6 about here]

Table 7.6 also suggests that, of the traditional Irish parties, Fianna Fáil is in very much better shape than Fine Gael. Support levels for Fianna Fáil decline, from traditional to modern voters, from 49 per cent to 31 per cent. Fianna Fáil remains the most popular party, by a wide margin, among ‘modern’ voters. Support for Fine Gael declines from 31 among traditional voters to less than a quarter of this, 7 per cent, among ‘modern’ voters. Fine Gael slumps from being the second most popular party among ‘traditional’ voters to the fifth most popular party among ‘modern’ voters, behind Labour, Sinn Féin and the Greens. Faced with the changing social face of modern Irish society – including among many other things migration from rural to urban areas and steadily declining church attendance – Fianna Fáil support appears to be far more resistant to social change than that of its traditional civil war enemy, Fine Gael.

Thus far, when we have considered various social factors that might affect voting behaviour, we have considered these one at a time. But many of factors are of course inter-related – rural people tend to be older and to go to church more, for example, while people with lower levels of education also tend to have a lower income. What we are really interested in are the independent effects of each of these factors, holding all others constant; this gives us a better idea of what might actually be affecting the vote, rather than just being associated with it. We can get some sense of this by looking at the simultaneous impact of all of the important effects we have so far considered, controlling statistically for the independent effect of each.8 The results of doing this are summarised in table 7.7, which indicates with ‘+’ or ‘-’ signs the direction and relative size of the significant independent effects of each factor. A ‘0’ indicates factors that had no independent effect, controlling for the effect of all others.

Very striking for both traditional parties is the fact that parental party support has a strong independent impact on the voting behaviour of children, even controlling for a wide range of social background factors. This suggests that parental party support does indeed affect children’s voting, rather than that children vote like their parents because they tend to find themselves in the same social situation as their parents.

For Fianna Fáil, the ‘dynasty’ effect swamps most others, though it remains true that Fianna Fáil voters tend to be less well-educated than others, all other factors held constant, and that they tend to be more assiduous churchgoers. However, older age and rural location do not seem to have an independent effect on Fianna Fáil voting, once the impact of having Fianna Fáil parents and being a regular churchgoer are controlled for. GAA membership turns out not to have an independent effect on voting for either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael; the patterns we observe in GAA membership seem to arise because both GAA membership and Fianna Fáil voting are related to the same social background characteristics.

The situation is rather different for Fine Gael. Once again, having Fine Gael parents is a factor with a very important independent impact on Fine Gael voting, but rural location is another very important independent factor (this reflects the fact that, as we have seen, Fine Gael has been much less successful in drumming up support in rapidly growing urban areas than has Fianna Fáil). Fine Gael voters are also significantly older and better off, holding other factors constant, and, controlling for other factors, they tend to be more likely to be women.

This support profile is not encouraging for a Fine Gael party trying to re-launch itself after a major general election setback, though it does give an insight into the party’s apparently inexorable decline. Fine Gael support in 2002 was grounded in traditional Fine Gael families, in rural areas, and among older people. All of these factors are in long-term decline. It is clearly essential to its future survival for Fine Gael to reach out beyond its traditional base, as it did under the leadership of Garret FitzGerald in 1982 – the last time the party went into government on the basis of a general election result. Fianna Fáil can draw some comfort from the fact that its support is less strongly linked to the age structure of the population, or to traditional patterns of rural habitation. Its support is linked to religious observance, which is declining; but apart from this Fianna Fáil’s fate seems less likely to be affected by the changing structure of Irish society.

All of this contrasts strongly with the independent effect of the various social background factors on support for Labour, the Greens or Sinn Féin (while it would have been nice to be able to treat each of these parties independently, the number of survey respondents supporting these parties means that they are taken together to give enough cases for confident statistical analysis). Apart from gender, which has no great impact, all of the background factors retain an independent impact on voting for the more radical parties. Their supporters tend strongly to be younger, to have spent longer in education, to be much more urban, to go to church much less, and not to be members of the GAA, and all of these factors have an independent impact on voting. Supporters of the more radical parties also seem to be somewhat less well-off than others. While we must be very careful about problems of cause and effect, these results do seem to imply a longer-term potential for change in Irish politics. Irish society is becoming more urban, people are going to church less, more people are spending longer in full-time education and the age structure of the Irish voting population is changing as a huge age bulge of younger people reaches voting age. All of this certainly offers a huge opportunity for the parties currently attracting younger and more urban voters, and a huge challenge for those not doing so.

Of course, in all of this we should not lose sight of one of the most important conclusions of the first part of this chapter, that young people are among the most recalcitrant non-voters. If non-voting by younger electors continues as a trend, this will retard the potential changes in the Irish party system that we have just discussed. Whatever parties young people might prefer, no change will happen if they do not turn out and vote for these. Indeed it seems likely, putting together the main conclusions of this chapter so far, that there would have been much more change in Irish party politics than we have already seen if young voters had been turning out at the same rate as their parents.

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