Party political support in Europe

Another section of this website uses British Social Attitudes survey data to show the clear generational differences in feelings of attachment to particular political parties.  In Britain, there is a very clear pattern, where each successive generation is less likely to feel an affinity with any particular party.  This data runs right back to 1983, with little change within generations, which suggests this is at least partly a cohort effect, where we are seeing a real shift in our relationship with political parties that may not be corrected as each generation ages.  

But is this an unusual pattern? Or do other countries face similar challenges in maintaining identification with organised political parties among more recent generations?  We examine this here, using data from the European Social Survey.  This survey has run every other year since 2002 and 17 countries have been included in every wave.  

Clearly this is a much shorter period than our previous analysis on British data, and is not sufficient to identify true generational effects.  However, what we are focused on here are similarities and differences in the patterns between countries, and this data can give us some insight into whether the UK faces a particular challenge or not.  

Looking firstly at the pattern in the UK, this very much mirrors the findings from the BSA data: the overall level of support for a political party is similar and the generational pattern is the same, running down from pre-war to generation Y.  The proportions agreeing that they “feel closer” to parties is slightly higher, probably because the BSA question asks whether people think of themselves as “supporters”, which may be seen as a stronger sentiment.  

But the key feature of data – a very large gap between the oldest and youngest generation – is still very much in evidence.  In fact, there is a 36 percentage point difference between the pre-war generation (67% say they feel close to a party) and generation Y (only 31% are close to a party).  

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Is this age-related pattern a peculiarly UK issue, or is it repeated in other European countries?  The answer seems to be that a lower level of engagement among younger generations is the norm rather than the exception – but the UK is the most extreme example among these countries.

Germany has one of the closest patterns to the UK.  The overall level of attachment to parties is very similar (around 50%), but more importantly there is a similar difference between the generations: the pre-war generation are most likely to feel closer to a particular party with subsequent generations less likely to feel any attachment. However, compared to the UK there is a smaller difference between the generations, with a 25 percentage point gap in 2010, compared with 36 percentage points in the UK.  

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France also has a significant overall gap between the oldest and youngest generations of 27 percentage points, with 59% of the pre-war generation saying they feel close to a political party, compared with only 32% of generation Y.  

The generational pattern is also similar, although in the more recent surveys, the baby boomer generation are closer to the pre-war generation than in either the UK or Germany.  Interestingly, this is the result of both an increase in attachment among baby boomers between 2002 and 2008, and a sustained decline in attachment among the pre-war generation since 2006. There are a number of possible explanations for this, related to particular circumstances in France – but it’s also worth noting that other studies have suggested there may actually be a curvilinear relationship between age and party attachment: that is, partisanship generally increases up to old age, and then begins to stabilise or decline.1


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Ireland provides a particularly interesting example of changing political engagement.  For much of the period covered, the generational pattern was very similar to those seen above: flat lines, and significant gaps between the generations (although still not as large as seen in the UK).  


However, between 2008 and 2010 there was a dramatic drop in party support across all four generations. Overall attachment to a political party halved, falling from 47% to 24%.  This was no doubt related to disillusionment with political parties in general and Fianna Fail in particular following the economic crisis and subsequent interventions from the IMF and the European Central Bank to bail out the economy.  Fianna Fail, which had been in power for 61 of the 79 years before the election in 2011, lost 75% of its seats.  

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However, not all countries show a similar generational pattern – and one of the most marked contrasts is Sweden.  Party affiliation in Sweden is higher across the board, with generally around 70% feeling close to a particular party, compared to just under 50% in most other countries we’ve looked at here.  

There are a large number of possible explanations for this difference in aggregate attachment to parties between countries - including the structure and historic stability of parties, how connected party politics is to other social structures such as trade unions and religion, taxation levels (studies have shown that higher tax levels are associated with higher engagement as the electorate has more at stake) and social issues such as levels of inequality (studies have also shown that lower inequality is associated with higher political engagement).2


But our key interest here is not this overall level, but the comparison of differences between generations across countries – and the contrast on this is just as stark. As the chart shows, engagement with political parties is much more consistent between generations in Sweden than in the UK and many other countries: in 2010 there was only a 13 percentage point difference between the pre-war generation and generation Y, while it was nearly three times that level in the UK (36 percentage points).


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The key aim in understanding whether there are generational differences in these types of measures is to shed light on how sustainable political parties are in their current form.  This has been a concern for many decades, and detailed analysis has come to very different conclusions depending on the data used and assumptions made.  Overall, the most convincing conclusion is that there are elements of both lifecycle and cohort effects, each made very difficult to unpick given the constantly shifting political context.3

But the analysis here does raise concerns.  It shows that the UK has the widest dispersion in engagement with political parties between generations, with generation Y in particular showing little sign of increasing engagement.  Of course, we may always have been an extreme case (our analysis shows that a very large generational gap has been a feature since at least the 1980s), and the party political system has not yet collapsed.  But it is still worrying to have such extreme fault lines between generations: given the greater challenge in appealing across the age spectrum in the UK, the risk is clearly that our political parties are more likely to focus on the older, easier to reach and electorally valuable groups.  


1 Niemi, R. et. al. Testing the Converse Partisanship Model with New Electorates in Comparative Political Studies 18 (1985)
2 See for example Newton, K. and Giebler, H. Patterns of Participation: Social and Political Participation in 22 Countries WZB Discussion Paper 2008 and Solt, F Economic Inequality and Democratic Political Engagement in American Journal of Political Science Vol. 52 No. 1 (2008)
3 See discussion in Tilley, J. Party Identification in Britain: Does Length of Time in the Electorate Affect Strength of Partisanship? In British Journal of Political Science Vol. 3 No 2 (April 2003) and Political Generations and Partisanship in the UK 1964-1997 in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Vol. 165 No 1 (2002)



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Hannah Shrimpton - Ipsos MORI

Hannah Shrimpton

Associate Director
Social Research Institute
Ipsos MORI

020 3059 5000

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