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Models That Account for the Way British Citizens Make Electoral Choices

Updated on January 3, 2022
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Nyamweya is a global researcher with many years of experience on practical research on a diversity of topics

In recent years, Britain has experienced a decline in political participation. This is with regard to not only the citizens, but also political parties. Participation of political parties in particular has consistently gone down since 1960s. This has been attributed to uncertainty in being given space in a job alongside the availability of time for one to involve himself or herself in electoral process(Brynin, and Newton 2010, 23).

Citizen engagement in political processes has become an issue of debate in Britain. Since 1964, the number of people who do not vote during general elections have increased by 18%. Individuals within the age bracket of 18-24 were the most inactive in the election process. This is an indication that political respondents for people who are below 25 is generally low negative and is an indication that the young adults in Britain have low interest in political processes. The ambiguous aspect of civil engagements has been attributed to behavioral and attitudinal orientations on political matters. These are significant in trying to understand the likely prospects of political engagements as the relation of a person and the power of influence is significant in this situation. In essence, the social correlation and trust between members of parliament and citizens is becoming slim as it is said that the society in which humanity thrive today has become more cynical because of the high level of influence and media reliability. The general populations have also been worried on the lost trust between the citizens and their MPs. The lost trust is attributed to the variation in moral values.

The voter turnout during the 2001 general elections was the lowest in Britain. The purpose of this paper is to present theoretical explanations on political participation and analyzes literature on the determinants of political participation in Britain.

It is interesting that despite many people in Britain having fought hard for voting rights, there are still many who do not want to vote. There are many reasons, which could be attributed to this; lack of political consciousness, while others do not even care to vote despite being politically conscious. There are those who fill that lining up for some hours without any “meaningful gain” would be a waste of time for them, and that they could have taken that time to do other “useful things”. Additionally, there are also those people who have completely lost trust on political leaders and think that their votes will make no difference since they are always concerned about themselves and their interests. The consistent scandals, bribes and lobbyists further worsen things.

Modes of Political Participation in Britain

The government of Britain has continued to follow a system of political party government. In addition, the two major parties in the country today have raised and spent more money than ever before. Additionally, both of them are in the process of invigorating their party organization and strategy. Apparently, there are clear and centralizing tendencies with parties focusing themselves on serving the system away from the original responsible party modes, irrespective of whether the novel system could be clearly described as a sound party model. In essence, the major parties in Britain have experienced some challenges; however, they have continued to dominate the political sphere of Britain. These aspects have made many to ponder whether the British party system is in transition or declining, and the meaning of these changes to the high intensity participation.

In effectively answering such questions, we need to apply a coherent theory of political participation. If such a theory is left out, then the meaning of evidence will be ambiguous. If we cannot understand why some people support a particular party by joining it or supporting and being committed to it, then we may not be able to effectively determine the development in the party system for the purpose of high intensity political participation.

Theoretical Perspective on Political Participations

The Civic Voluntarism Model

The Civic Voluntarism Mode is the most widely and popular model that has been applied in the field of political sciences for political participation. This theory was originally known as the resource model and can be traced back to the works of Verba and Nie (1972) in their study of political participation in America. The theory was intensely utilized by these authors themselves, their supporters and others in an attempt to explain political engagements not only in Britain but other countries as well(Moyser, and Day 1992,34). The basic idea in this mode may be captured in this statement: We emphasize on three issues that account for political participation. As we indicated, it would be very helpful to create normal questions and instead ask why individuals do not engage themselves in political issues. Some of the answers that may come out of this is because they may not want to, or nobody asked them for the same. To state this phrase differently, people may disorient themselves from political activities because they don’t have resources, because they are not psychologically engaged in politics, or because they may be disengaged with the networks that brings individuals into politics (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995: 269).

Verba et al (1995) defines the resource factor in this mode in terms of money, civic skills time, and time (271). The aspect of psychological involvement is basically defined in terms of a personal sense of political efficacy (272). Finally, the aspect of recruitment network is defined as the urge for participation which come to people at work, organizations, church, colleagues, acquaintances, friends and so on (272). Verba and Nie (1972) observes that the resource aspect in particular were very essential In this model, though psychological perceptions also played a crucial role in explaining political participation. In particular, civic perceptions are rather more crucial in modern versions of the model, although it can still be said that resources are the main factors that explain the willingness to participate in political affairs (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995: 270).

Verba and Nie (1972) came up with the first empirical typology of various participation modes and categorized citizens in various groups with regard to the type of activities which they performed (Verba and Nie 1972: 118–19). The first of these group were those who were inactive, involving people who either did nothing or very little. There is also the voting specialist who are regular voters, but do nothing more. The third groups were parochial participants who regularly interact with government officials for particular issues but are otherwise not active. The fourth groups were communalists, people who intermittently engaged in political action on a wide range of social issues, but may not be highly involve. The fifth group was campaigners who were heavily involved in different campaign. The final group is political activists who involve themselves in different kinds of activities.

Alwin et al (2011) observed that in Britain, fewer women and youth participated in politics in comparison to men. Some of the factors that culminated in this outcome was the low access by women and youth to socio economic resources. For instance, noted that men had a higher probability of being employed on full time basis on comparison to women. Further, employments are positively associated to political participation, efficacy and information among U.K respondents. Hence, controlling for employment status could contribute to the gender gap that is being experienced in participation. Studies have noted that the low level of political participation, efficacy, and interest could be significant explanations for the gender gap in political participations (Burns, 2007, 67).

Several studies have supported the principles behind the Civic Voluntarism Model in political participation. For instance, Health and Swaddle studied the 1987 General election in Britain and noted various excuses that were presented by non-voters for not voting. ,This lead them to conclude that nonvoting for majority of people was a temporary thing and was associated with such factors as sickness, cost of voting, change of address, holidays and lack of time (p.36). Additionally, Heath and Swaddle established in their research that both income and class significantly influenced the turnout with those with higher income turning out in large numbers. The authors observed that the electorate’s behavior greatly changed in 1974 and 198, emphasizing that the turnout was significantly high in situations when the cost of voting were reasonable, that is not too high (p. 40).

Commenting on this study, Pattie and Johnston 1998, (p. 278) argued that there are few factors, which harbored a substantial influence individual decisions on voter turnout. According to these authors, the turnout was largely driven by three factors: political commitment, mobilizing efforts by the parties and socio economic conditions. The authors continued to articulate that those who were interested in participating in an election or with a particular party had evaluated the cost and found it “cost bearable” in their voting decisions.

Also supporting the civic voluntarism theory, Denver (2002) explained that individuals’s disillusionment with the existing government at that time led to the low turnout. A study he conducted to find out the level of voter turnout in the country revealed the turn out as being higher in areas that were more densely populated, constituents that had more owner-occupiers, managerial and professional workers as well as famers. On the other hand, turnout was low in homesteads that didn’t have a car, places with high number of ethnic minority voters, those with more manual workers and those with council tenants. These findings support the concept that in Britain, resources are a very essential aspect that determines voter turnout.

The Rational Choice Model

The rational choice model has played a significant role in analyzing political engagement. Downs (1957), summarizes this theory in the following statement. “A rational man is the one who depicts the following behavior, he can consistently make a decision when confronted with a range of alternative, he ranks the alternatives that face him in the sequence of his preferences in a manner that each is preferred to, inferior to, or indifferent to each other. A rational person is the one who chooses from among the possible alternatives that are rated highest in his preference ordering. In addition, he makes a similar decision every time he is confronted with similar alternatives”(6).

An example in this persepective would be when an individual has to choose between work and voting. Which one would be more beneficial than the other would? A person who may see that voting will “waste his time” may decide to go for work instead or other venture which may be of benefit to him in one way or another.

According to Crewe et al (1992) voter alienation and voter apathy are two different aspects that have formed the basis for low political participation in the perspective of Britain. Apathy refers to lack of feeling of individual responsibility, indifference and a passivity in matters related to politics. Subsequently, it also denotes the lack of feeling for individual obligation in participating in politics. On the other hand, voter alienation refers to the active rejection of a political system and hence, political participation is negative towards the political world. Crewe et al (1992) established that the committed non-voter and alienated abstainer were a rare exception to both the British electorate and the regular non-voters in the country. Crewe continued to explain that the voter turnout in general elections in Britain had consistently decreased since 1950s. This phenomena is explained as being attributable to non -commitment and erosion of partisanship between citizens and the government which experienced at this time. The reason attributed to lack of commitment in politics by the British electorate was disillusionment with political parties that they had not seen any positive impact they had made to the citizen’s welfare.

The Social Psychological Model

The social psychological model is another approach that can be used to analyze the aspect of political participation. This model is significantly important in understanding unorthodox kinds of participation including rebellious collective actions and protest behavior (Muller 1979). There are different variants of the social psychological theory, however, the focus of this part is on the expectations- values norms theory as presented by Muller. In essence, the expectations –values norms theory is concerned on explaining the correlation between individual behavior and attitudes. Fishbein observed that from the point of conventional social psychological theories that were focused on explaining behavior from attitude, they appeared not to work very well since the relationships were themselves weak (Fishbein 1969: 14–27). In solving this problem, Fisher observes that we should focus closely on identifying the attitude of individuals towards the behavior instead of focusing it towards the goals of that behavior.

Applying this to the function of modeling, the association between a persons’ attitudes and engagement in political matters, this translated that the people should be asked on their perceptions concerning different forms of protest behavior instead of their attitudes towards political events and unjust laws that might have instigated this behavior. According to Fishbein, such pereceptions, alongside other factors made prediction of behavior possible, fair and accurate. He postulated that theory recognizes three types of variables that were used as the main determinants of behavior a) normative beliefs both social and personal b) attitudes towards the behavior c) and motivation in complying with the norms (Fishbein 1967: 490).

In essence, the expectations-value-norms theory regards behavior in two general categories: social norms and expected benefits. On one spectrum, individuals are viewed as utilitarians who measure the benefits of various courses of action. This theory however, does not make any distinction between the collective benefits and private actions of political action. On another spectrum, they are viewed as actors who are embedded in networks of social beliefs and norms that offer both external and internal motivations to behave in particular ways. Muller (1979) explained that attitudes concerning behavior are defined as individual belief on the ramifications of his behavior which is multiplied by their utility or subjective value . Normative beliefs refer to the beliefs of an individual person in participation theories. They also refer to the justifiability of this behavior and an individual’s perception of significant others such as peers or family members. Motivation in complying with these norms reflects such factors as personality and how they perceive the reasonableness of others expectations (25).

Heath and Taylor (1999) came up with arguments that the most convincing reason for the variation of the voter turnout in Britain between 1945 - 1997 was given as the perceived closeness of the election by perceived ideological variations between the parties. According to them, the fact that mock elections, political commentators, labor seats that were regarded as safe. opinion polls and political had predicted an easy victory for Labor party had influenced people not to vote. In addition, the move by the New Labor to the core of the political spectrum and the subsequence move by the conservatives increased ideological variations between the parties, therefore resulting in consistent low turnout . This situation was heightened by the consistent enjoyment of substantial leads by the Labor Party over their rivals.

Commenting on the same, Johnson and Pattie (2001) pointed out that throughout 1970s to 1990s, the average turnout in Britain was remarkably consistent were around 75% and claimed that the election conducted in 1997 was just a step in inexorable downward spiral (p. 291).Their research indicated that the reason for the high turnout in elections was because of the close contents of this election. Hence, the low turnout in 1997 election was not surprising since it was not closely contested. Another factor that influenced the turnout in their perspectives is that the Labour and Conservatives were ideologically close.

Steed and Curtice (2002), observed that the voter turnout in 2001 was the lowest that has ever been officially recorded in Britain since 1918 (p. 304). Considering that the low turnout in 1918 was influenced by world war I. Steed and Curtice argued that “voluntary abstention and with no concrete reason was at high degree in 2001, in comparison to previous general elections in the country since the emergency of mass franchise(p. 304). The electoral commission as one, most significant aspect in 2001 featured the low level of turnout, general elections (Electoral Commission 2001, p. vii). Steed and Curtice (2002) argued that the significantly low turnout was caused by decreasing party identification, the attitude of a sure victory for the Labor party, dissatisfaction of the traditional Labor voters with the ideological movement of the party towards the core of the political spectrum. They also observed that the mechanism of the first past- the post electoral system, which is in existence in UK, resulted into the Labor Party losing votes without losing seats. This led into the electoral system producing and electoral outcome that was the most biased ever (p. 333).

The Mobilization Model

The mobilization model explains that people may decide to participate as a response to political opportunities that they may gain from such participation. Stated differently, some people engage in political affairs when they find that the anticipated benefits for them to do so are greater. The theory also postulates that some people are influenced by others to involve themselves in political processes. This model is n many ways related to resource model that formulated by Brady, Schlozman, and Verba in their earlier statements, which illustrated why individuals became political activists.

The benefits for participating are obviously related to resource theory since persons with high social economic status have a more probability in accessing political parties, campaign organizations, interest groups that have low status individuals. This is because these types of institutions are more common with communities where individuals with high status live (Verba, Schlozman and Brady 1995: 337–43). Since the benefits for participation are not consistent across the population, an interaction between opportunities and resources mobilizes some people in getting involved in political matters. Social pressure in participating is related to resources as well. This is because if individuals with high status have a high likelihood of participating, this will enhance a culture of political participation in such individuals that are found among low status people.


Various schools of thought can be used to explain the voter turnout in the perspective of United Kingdom. The theory of Civic Voluntarism, rational choice, social psychological model, , and mobilizing theory are the key models that can be used to explain citizen’s participation in political affairs in Britain. Both the theory of civic voluntarism and rational choice postulate that prior to deciding on whether or not to participate in political matters, they do weigh up the benefits and cost associated with such actions. It has also been argued that each individual voter’s benefits in voting are infinitesimal compared to such an endeavor. Other factors include energy, time factor and the chances in other activities.

In United Kingdom, the benefits for political participation are obviously related to resource theory since persons with high social economic status have a high probability in accessing political parties, campaign organizations, interest groups that have low status individuals. This is because these types of institutions are more common with communities where individuals with high status live (Verba, Schlozman and Brady 1995: 337–43). Since opportunities for participation are not consistent across the population, an interaction between opportunities and resources mobilizes some people in getting involved in political matters. Social pressure in participating is related to resources as well. This is because if individuals with high status have a high likelihood of participating, this will enhance a culture of participation among such individuals that are found among low status people.


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