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Twisting Without Turning; How Margaret Thatcher Responded to Public Opinion

Elites
Political Leadership
Public Policy
Representation
Public Opinion
Chris Butler
University of Manchester
Chris Butler
University of Manchester
Congruence
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Abstract

Analyses of policy responsiveness are often restricted by how publicly available public opinion research is. Studies which use data from opinion polls often cannot account for what private information parties collect on voters’ preferences. A handful of studies have analysed US Presidents’ behaviour in response to their own polling but such research is scarce. This paper looks at the responsiveness of the Thatcher government 1979-1990 in response to the electoral incentives identified by their privately commissioned polling. Thatcher’s government is of particular interest due to her popular image as a dogmatic conviction politician, which overlooks how her policy programme developed over time. Conservative party polling of the time focused not just on presentational issues, but on highly detailed polling of the popularity of a wide range of policy issues among different groups of voters. This study explores how the Thatcher government’s macroeconomic policies developed over time in response to annual polling of the popularity of the government’s budget. It finds that whilst there were policy priorities which remained inflexible during their tenure, the Thatcher government was often responsive on lower policy priorities. The findings add to our knowledge on how politicians respond to electoral cues, adding data from the UK where the unitary system of government may offer incentives to parties in office to respond to public opinion to avoid future electoral defeat.