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When are governing parties more likely to respond to public opinion? The strange case of the Liberal Democrats and tuition fees

Abstract

Parties in government are widely expected to be broadly responsive to public opinion. However, history is littered with examples of governments pursuing unpopular courses of action. This article explores how public opinion influences elite decision-making by tracing the process behind the Liberal Democrats’ notorious U-turn on tuition fees. Interviews with the politicians and advisers who took the decision reveal that the party’s policy priorities in government owed more to the preferences of elite decision-makers than to the preferences of the party’s supporters. They also provide evidence that selective perception compromised elites’ ability to anticipate voters’ reactions. The findings demonstrate that it cannot be assumed that parties in office will prioritise vote-seeking goals above policy-seeking goals.

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Appendix 1 List of interviewees

Appendix 1 List of interviewees

Duncan Brack, Member of Liberal Democrats’ Federal Policy Committee 2003–2010, Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change 2010–2012, April 2018.

Sir Vincent Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills 2010–2015, June 2018.

Dr. Richard Grayson, Vice Chair of Federal Policy Committee 2006–2010, April 2018.

Matthew Hanney, Party Liaison Officer for the Leader of the Liberal Democrats 2007–2010, Head of Political Office for the Deputy Prime Minister 2010–2012, May 2018.

Sir Simon Hughes, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats 2010–2014, June 2018.

Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change 2010–2012 and member of Liberal Democrat coalition negotiating team, April 2018.

Polly McKenzie, Special Adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister 2010–2015, May 2018.

Lord Oates, Chief of Staff to the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, 2010–2015.

Chris Saunders, Special Adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister, 2010–2012, June 2018.

Lord Stunell, Liberal Democrat MP for Hazel Grove 1997–2015 and member of the Liberal Democrat coalition negotiating team, May 2018.

Lord Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, 2010–2014, June 2018.

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Butler, C. When are governing parties more likely to respond to public opinion? The strange case of the Liberal Democrats and tuition fees. Br Polit 16, 336–354 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41293-020-00139-3

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Keywords

  • Public opinion
  • Liberal Democrats
  • Tuition fees
  • UK political parties