Page last updated at 17:18 GMT, Saturday, 1 May 2010 18:18 UK

Election: How do friends and family influence votes?

By Gavin Stamp
Political reporter, BBC News

The Mitchell family in Eastenders
Are voting intentions, like secrets, still kept within the family circle?

Politicians are expected to know where they stand on key issues.

But for everyone else, asked to pass judgement every few years and faced with the various claims and counter-claims of the parties, it can be more difficult to make up one's mind.

Where do the many undecided voters turn for guidance or inspiration?

One answer, in the past, was for people just to toe the family line.

In years gone by, Labour, Conservative and Liberal affiliations were passed down through a family's generations - so much so that any deviation was seen as amounting to betrayal.

But such rigidity seems to have gone, along with many of the old features of a class-based political system.

Recent research by Opinion Matters suggests family influence does still have a real impact on what people do in the privacy of the voting booth.

Its survey of more than 2,500 people found one in four adults still base their decisions primarily on discussions with either family or friends.

Family ties

For 18-24 year olds, the figure is even higher. One in three claim family or peer group influence as the decisive factor when casting their vote, compared with only 5% likely to be swayed by a face-to-face visit from a canvasser.

Men and women are equally likely to consult family members or friends on voting, the findings suggest, but people are less likely to seek out the opinions of those close to them as they get older.

Those under 24 are twice as likely to be swayed by relatives or friends than those aged over 65.

"Clearly the combined power of family ties and peer pressure are the hidden 'swing factor' that not even the cleverest political strategists can convincingly master," Andy Gallagher, who led the research, says.

Television: 63%
Newspapers: 47%
Radio: 27%
Friends and family: 25%
Nothing: 21%
Campaign leaflets: 19%
Online newspapers: 19%
Visit from canvasser: 9%
Source: Opinion Matters survey of 2,500 adults in April 2010

For party leaders seldom slow to stress the importance of family life and background in shaping their character, the thought of paternal, maternal or sibling influence on voting allegiances may seem comforting.

But is this still the case in an era when children tend to leave home earlier and successive generations are less likely to go in the same trades.

"Obviously social norms are going to be one of the most powerful factors influencing how you vote," says Celia Hannon, from the think tank Demos.

"It is a key factor during childhood but it is not set in stone. The early 20s are a key period where political attitudes are formed and often set for the rest of life."

'Politically savvy'

Any inherited party affiliation has to survive those rebellious teenage years. Famously, Tony Blair's father was a Conservative but he emerged from his, largely non-political, university years as a Labour supporter.

The steady decline in support for Labour and the Conservatives over the past 20 years would seem to prove that old loyalties - often embedded within the family unit - and voting patterns are breaking down.

But what is replacing them as the deciding factor for the millions of floating voters out there?

Teenagers are not simply the vehicles for their friends' attitudes or their parents' attitudes
Celia Hannon, Demos

While key issues such as the economy, health or crime will always matter, are people ultimately converted by the views of close friends or even wider word of mouth?

In the era of instant reaction in the blogosphere, where political campaigns can gain traction within hours, it is easy to see how impressions about parties or politicians can shift dramatically as a result of a single moment.

Although she believes the influence of social media cannot be underestimated, Celia Hannon rejects the idea of "group think", saying young people are not easily swayed by the opinions of others.

"I think we should be quite clear that teenagers are fairly savvy politically," she says. "They are not simply the vehicles for their friends' attitudes or their parents' attitudes."

'Waverers and followers'

Rather than the traditional family gathering round the dinner table or a group of friends meeting in a pub, perhaps the real driving forces of future political opinion will be virtual communities.

Siobhan Freegard, founder of the Netmums website, says there has been a "sea-change" in the way that her 750,000 members talk about political issues in recent years.

A couple reading the papers in Regents Park, London
People are no longer wedded to a single party for life

Talk of politics would once have "killed most conversations" on the site but the recession has changed all that, she believes.

It has made politics mean something at an everyday level and brought previously taboo subjects, such as tax credits, into the mainstream.

She compares the site to a "school gate" where contributors are exposed to a much wider set of opinions than would otherwise be the case but is cautious about how peoples' views rub off on others.

"It is like any social group," she adds. "You have people who have a set of forthright opinions that they are not afraid to stand up for. Then you have the waverers and the followers."

With the explosion of new media and mobile technology, those voting in this year's election will be exposed to more information and people seeking to influence their behaviour than ever before.

However it seems friends and family still play a key role - albeit with the health warning from that old saying that the one thing a husband can keep from his wife, and vice versa, is the way they vote.

Does family still matter in how you vote? Send us your comments:

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The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.

Yes, friends and family influence me on who I will vote for. However my family votes in so many ways it seems rather redundant to be too heavily influenced by them. My grandparents vote SNP and Tory, my parents vote Labour and most of my friends vote Liberal Democrats. Of course they influence me - or try to at least - on who to vote for, but ultimately I will choose who to vote for, not them.
Donald, Aberdeen

For the first time ever, I have managed to influence my parents and younger brother (who is a first-time voter) to all vote Lib Dem. My mum has always been Plaid Cymru and my dad Conservative. They don't pay too much attention to the news, so all the intricacies that can reveal everything about a leader and his party is explained by myself. I am proud to say that I have turned them around to the idea that because Labour are doing wrong, Conservatives must be better mindset. Hopefully this will be reflected in the general election.
Jeff, Wales

My grandma was a Conservative politician and my dad caught on at a young age. My mum follows his voting pattern, as does my younger brother - and so do I. However, we never discussed politics as a family and my parents have never advised us on how to vote. My partner is a die-hard leftie and many of my friends and groups on social networking sites that I frequent have entirely opposite views to my own, but nobody has ever managed to sway me from the right, much to everyone's complete and utter dismay. I say it's in my blood.
Katy, London

Like my parents I would never vote Conservative and I would agree that I was influenced by their views whilst I grew up, even now as I am on the verge of graduating from a philosophy and politics degree, I still would never vote Conservative even though my views on politics are more informed. I do think that family views can stay with you, but I think this is also because as a family we share the same principles and age does not often change them.
Chloe , Exeter

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