How to answer an Edexcel source question on voting behaviour

Exam question:

Using the source, evaluate the view that voting behaviour in the UK is largely determined by party leadership. (30 marks)


Why do we vote the way we do?

A shockingly high percentage of the UK electorate misunderstands our electoral system. Instead of voting for an MP, they vote for the party leader who they think will make the best prime minister. This turns a general election into a contest fought, indirectly, between the individuals who lead each major party, and the media play a critical role in shaping how these individuals are portrayed to the public. Thus, the image and personality of the party leaders contesting the election is an important factor.

Moreover, people generally identify with a specific political party from the age at which they start voting and develop a sense of loyalty and attachment to that party — little deliberation takes place on polling day. Nowadays, this association may have less to do with ideology and class, and more with level of education. Still, in some parts of the UK there remains a form of tribalism that deeply ties a constituency to a party.

Most important of all are the events of the time of the election and the key questions of the day. Ultimately, the electorate decides who has the most convincing solutions to the problems that the country is experiencing. In some part, this comes down to the record of success each party brings to the contest. In times of relative stability and comfort, voters tend to be more apathetic, whereas in times of hardship and difficulty, voters will be more invested in the process of choosing their representatives.

Plan before you start writing

Start by reading the whole source really carefully. Use a pencil to make notes on the source. Are different arguments being made? In this source there are three competing views, each offering a different explanation for voting behaviour. Identify these arguments and develop them as ‘themes’ in your response.

First, the source suggests that voters use elections as a way of choosing the next prime minister, which is the result of misunderstanding how the first-past-the-post electoral system functions. Second, the source says that voters are bound by a sense of loyalty to a specific political party. Finally, the source asserts that events play the most important role in voter behaviour, and that choice is largely determined by the wider political context.

Before you begin to write your response, ask yourself which side of the debate you agree with. There is no single correct answer. The examiner wants to see how well you can support and sustain a line of argument, while critiquing — and, ultimately, undermining — the other views.

Structure your answer clearly

Include an introduction at the beginning and a clear judgement at the end of your answer. In between, write three paragraphs, each focused on a different theme.

Your introduction should identify the argument that you think is the strongest, with a piece of supporting evidence. After this, briefly outline the other, weaker, arguments that are presented in the source. For example:

The single most important influence on voting is the perceived competence of the party leaders. In a poll taken on the morning of the 2019 general election, only 17% of the participants deemed Jeremy Corbyn to be a ‘competent leader’. Other factors, including the events of the time and party loyalty have a role in shaping voter behaviour, but certainly to a much lesser extent.

It is a sensible idea to begin by addressing the stated factor in the question as your first body paragraph (even if this is not the argument you think is strongest). The logic behind this is simple: if you run out of time in the examination, it is better to have covered the stated factor and included relevant details than to have diverted your response away from the focus of the question.

Focus on the source throughout

You must draw on the source for themes, but give your own specific examples. You can impress the examiner with your knowledge of the three election case studies which you have revised— for example, you could develop the idea that Brexit was the key issue that determined the 2019 election and secured a Conservative victory. Use concise, direct quotations to signpost your points and to ensure that your answer explicitly links back to the source. Do not merely copy out the source or paraphrase it.

You will receive no credit for advancing new arguments or making a case, however credible, for an alternative explanation. All your AO1 marks will be awarded on the basis of how well you use the arguments made in the source. Think of the source as a skeleton. It is your job to flesh it out using accurate and relevant factual examples, statistics and evidence. Candidates who make vague, nebulous points (even if they are broadly accurate) typically score no higher than Level 2. Take, for example, the following point:

The source suggests that an election is a contest for votes ‘fought … between the individuals who lead each major party’. This is true because Labour won the 1997 election because a lot of people liked Tony Blair and preferred him to John Major.

This point is under-developed and lacks precise factual knowledge. It could be developed much more effectively like so:

Labour won a landslide victory (418 seats) in the 1997 election, partly because of the public image of its leader Tony Blair, who was portrayed in the media as a young moderniser. This gained support from traditional Labour-voting constituencies, e.g. Redcar, as well as those from Tory safe-seats, e.g. Enfield Southgate. John Major had come to be seen as tired, boring and unable to unite his party. The TV show Spitting Image depicted Major as permanently grey, thus reflecting the electorate’s disenchantment with the Conservative party at the time.

Here the argument made in the source is developed with accurate and relevant examples, statistics and anecdotal facts, which shows a high level of knowledge.

Assess the arguments, not the source itself

Do not evaluate the source as a piece of evidence. Focusing, for example, on provenance and reliability will not attract any credit. Candidates who score well evaluate the arguments in the source, critiquing them in their response. Ask yourself why some of the arguments in the source are weaker, and what criteria you are using to make this judgement. For example:

The idea that party loyalty is a significant influence on voting behaviour is weak, because in the 2019 election there was significant swing voting, especially in the so-called Labour heartland. Party identification based on social class has waned significantly in recent years, especially as the two major parties have moved to the centre, which has caused dealignment.

Here, knowledge is being used to undermine the argument and reveal its flaws.

Make a judgement

It is important to leave time to write a convincing conclusion at the end of your answer, but do not neglect the opportunity to make interim judgements at the end of each paragraph. This helps you to demonstrate a sustained focus on the question. Really strong responses always show comparative judgement, weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of each argument, and each sits within the hierarchy of importance. Always come back to the question: is voter behaviour largely determined by party leadership, or are other factors more influential?