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Selective Perception in Elite Perceptions of Public Opinion: Evidence from UK Government Decisions

Governance
Political Psychology
Qualitative
Decision Making
Policy-Making
Chris Butler
University of Manchester
Chris Butler
University of Manchester

Abstract

Theories of how elected governments are expected to respond to public opinion tend to assume that decision-makers are capable of anticipating the electoral reaction to their decisions. Whilst recent challenges to the expectation that elected governments will be broadly responsive to their electorate have focused on how public opinion has become more volatile, there has been less examination of whether decision-makers in government are able to rationally process information about the likely public reaction to their decisions and how patterns of misperception may affect government responsiveness to public opinion. Despite the widely-held expectation that elected government will respond to voters’ preferences, the history of democracies is littered with examples of governments pursuing unpopular policies even after the public has signalled its hostility to them. Whilst explanations have been offered for why governments may prioritise other goals over satisfying short-term public opinion, such as the expectation that they may be electorally rewarded in the longer-term from the public reaction to policy outcomes, these theories often assume that government actors are capable of calculating the degree of electoral risk associated with their decisions. This study uses elite interviews and document analysis to trace the process behind three recent controversial public policy decisions in the United Kingdom – the change in the immigration policy regime under New Labour, the Liberal Democrats’ u-turn on tuition fees, and the coalition government’s NHS reforms - to examine how decision-makers calculated the electoral risks associated with those decisions and discover which other goals were prioritised above responding to public opinion. It finds that decision-makers routinely miscalculate the likely electoral reaction to their decisions by over-estimating the likelihood of voters to agree with their positions, over-estimating their capacity to shape public opinion, and under-estimating opponents’ ability to frame the debate. The results show that even in a political system such as the UK which tends to produce single party governments with few institutional constraints on their ability to respond to public opinion, elites’ capability of rationally responding to public opinion is compromised by selective perception. The results demonstrate that theories of when governments are more or less likely to respond to public opinion or to embark on controversial public service reforms need to consider how selective perception affects government actors’ decision-making abilities.