Focus groups are things that are ‘done’ to that mysterious category of citizens, the ones who aren’t the well-connected metropolitan professionals (or, indeed, trust fund dilettantes) who make up the ‘Official Political Classes’. Those who run focus groups, such as James Johnson, who once ran No 10’s polling for Theresa May, and ex-Labour pollster, Deborah Mattinson of Britain Thinks, are latter day ring masters. They set up groups of exotic types from places like Stoke or Boston, in safe pens, and let politicians or journalists ‘observe’ the ring from behind two way mirrors.
These things used to be known as ‘freak shows’, and for good reason. Bearded ladies, people of restricted growth, riders of unicycles, were paraded to reassure respectable, god-fearing folk that whilst the stuff of their nightmares did indeed exist, it was possible to corral, to tame, and to render inert the dangerous wildness that exists in the world.
So it is today. Bearded ladies now epilate, short people can become unremarkable citizens, or glamorous celebrities, as suits their ambitions, and unicycle riders are now confined to Extinction Rebellion protests. The old circuses have been replaced by a trade that provides a stage and a megaphone for ill-informed bigotry, a relish for aggression, and a taste for vulgarity.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m fascinated, too, when I get a peek at those freaks. Channel Four News did a series of focus groups with voters in the Birmingham Northfield constituency, where the Tories took the Brexity edge of city seat from Labour in 2019. I didn’t see any bad people in the focus group run by James Johnson. I saw quite normal people from a constituency in which I once lived, the sort of people I’d have lived next door to, or gone to school with. The sort of people who would normally be unlikely to find themselves sitting with a group of strangers being asked to discuss their own political attitudes. Not surprisingly, this novel situation has a similar effect to, say, putting an assortment of lobby journalists, fellows of Oxford colleges, and unpaid interns from Conde Nast in a Novotel meeting room and asking them to discuss Grime music, daytime television, and bus services. They might need a convenor to get them going, but no doubt they’d be able to fill an hour or two with half remembered nonsense on subjects they’d never previously given a second thought to. Whether the exercise has the capacity to tell us much is debatable. Whether the uses of focus groups includes grooming the public to think barely considered assumptions and prejudices widespread and acceptable is less debatable.
Deborah Mattinson describes a particularly sadistic focus group exercise in which two groups of actual, or former, Labour voters are assembled. One group, younger, urban, often graduates, are 2016 Remain voters. The other, small town, older, non-graduate, are Brexiters. They are first asked to meet in their bubbles, and to create their ideal political party, including a sense of who would lead it, and what the key policies should be. They then come together, each group presenting their ideal vision of a party to the other.
Brexity-small towners wanted a party led by ‘Spoons magnate, Tim Martin. The urban eggheads preferred a leader “like a young David Attenborough”. From this unpromising start, the groups had to imagine that they had no choice but to form a coalition to work together. What were their red lines? Where could they make compromises?
Unsurprisingly, the Brexity bunch wouldn’t budge an inch. They couldn’t see the need for compromises. The boffins, understanding how democracy is supposed to work, could. Mattinson said that the only way they could work together was if the urban voters capitulated to the whims of the resentful ex-Red Wall folk.
The way such an outcome is no doubt being ‘explained’ to Starmer and his team right now, is that the urban voter is open to compromise, having nowhere else to go, whereas the Blue Wallies won’t ever back down on flag and bunting patriotism, kicking out Muslims, and bringing back dead industries. But is that the right conclusion to draw from a deeply suspect research method? And more to the point, is it politically advantageous, or even necessary?
To hell with principle, some might say, bring on power! Win an election in order to do something, or sit on the sidelines in powerless purity forever.
There’s a cautionary tale here. James Johnson told similar stories to Theresa May. May’s known for her defeat, but she actually raised the Tory vote considerably in 2017, and basically did the groundwork for ‘Boris’ Johnson’s victory two years later. May’s ground campaign was exemplary, the problem was that her leadership lacked ‘authentic’, vulgar, conviction. Despite her solid record at the Home Office of deep and enduring lack of simple human compassion, including the hostile environment and the Windrush cruelty, May failed to understand that “it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”. A classic ‘gin and Jag set’ Tory, May lacked that magic Wetherspoons touch.
It’s not merely a question of style. May could not, in all conscience, ditch “her people”, the materially comfortable middle class of the southern shires. Yet the focus group logic for the Tories is that those Home Counties voters need to ‘compromise’, to pay more, get less, in order to transfer wealth and power to the new part of the Tory coalition. I’m not at all sure that this is a stable long term realignment.
Nor is it clear that Keir Starmer, or any other plausible Labour leader, is capable of being convincing as an Ing-er-lund flag-waver, up for a fight with ‘feminazis’ and readers of books, a loud, proud, John Bull vulgarian. Even if a Labour leader could act the part, would Labour’s urban, graduate, feminised membership, and those urban voters they resemble, actually compromise on their social liberalism? I’m not convinced, at least not long term. We saw what happened under Blair. There are limits to triangulation, and it’s a trick that loses potency with repetition.
Focus groups are money-spinners for those who service the political class, but are they useful for much beyond road testing a three word slogan?
If electoral politics is merely about the retail transaction – find out what the punters will buy, and sell it to them – then perhaps there’s a point to focus groups. But if democratic politics is about more than that, and many of us believe it is, or at least it ought to be, then let’s put focus groups back in the box marked ‘Open With Care’.
Instead how about a new kind of ‘authentic’ politician? People who believe in things, say what they mean, and lead people through complicated problems with honesty.
I really do think that even people in focus groups, once they’re back in their normal lives, will respond to the good honest truth with a sigh of relief.