There’s a magazine called Total Politics. It’s described as a “lifestyle magazine” for those who work in British politics. I first read it when I was given a free copy at Conservative Party Conference about a decade ago. I’ve always been a political nerd, a wonk, and an ecumenical one, reading publications from across the political spectrum. Why else, indeed, was I at a Tory Conference, as an avowed social democrat?
Total Politics magazine troubled me. It was fascinating in its narrowness and banality, as I suppose fits a ‘lifestyle” rag. There was a joke in Private Eye when the short-lived SDP was born, that their slogan was “Take Politics out of Politics”. Total Politics ought to have used that as their strap line.
The view of politics enshrined in the magazine was that politics was an aspect of media, or showbiz, essentially marketing, advertising and public relations. It was not primarily about principles, philosophy, ideology, or policy development for a purpose. For there was, in its pages, only one purpose in politics – to win.
I’m no ideological purist. Principles without power are of little use in a democratic polity. But ‘win’, in this context, is perhaps a misleading word. Winning really means gaming the system.
When that first copy of Total Politics fell into my hands, I was a political naïf. I had a gut belief that the purpose of winning elections was to do good things, to change unhappy lives, to make the country a better place to live, and a better influence in the world. But this innocuous little publication suddenly made me realise that I was a dinosaur, Beatrice Webb adrift in a Love Island world. For all that I knew about Thatcher and the Saatchis, or the spinners of New Labour, I hadn’t grasped the full degradation of our politics.
Politics is, at least as it is now practised by the main parties, a tawdry matter of the retail offer in a glossy package. It’s a sales job, not a manufacturing job. Find out what voters want, and flog it to them. Don’t waste time on trying the hard stuff – making something real, useful, with a purpose. The only purpose is getting into No.10.
Hence the hiring of Deborah Mattinson as Labour’s new Director of Strategy. Founder of polling firm, Britain Thinks, Mattinson is a firm believer in the use of focus groups to guide policy and strategy in politics.
Focus groups are made up of a small number of members of the public selected to be representative socially, and by political affiliation, of the wider public, either in a constituency or region. It’s quite an industry these days. There are even freelancers who do the legwork on the ground to find these Everyfolk for polling companies.
The methods of the focus group gurus draw crudely from social psychology, and the broader social sciences. There’s usually a convenor who guides the group, posing questions, but not overtly seeking to influence the direction of discussion, though keeping it within the parameters set by the company. Often there is a one way mirrored window in the room, enabling others, for instance, politicians, to witness the discussion as it happens. They ask obvious questions about parties, leaders, and policies, but also less obvious ones, like, “If Boris Johnson was a car, what sort of car would he be?” (The answer to that question, posed last year, was “an unreliable car, the sort that’s falling apart, and keeps breaking down”. Which is funny, contains some truths, but holds no clue as to why he still leads in the polls.)
Mattinson herself has gone beyond these meetings, attaching herself to individual participants after initial group discussions, joining them all day, at their homes, or as they collect their children from school, or head down the pub. Her book, Beyond The Red Wall, is based upon these encounters.
The attraction of focus groups to politicians is, on one level, understandable. Theresa May’s No.10 was apparently obsessed with the political views expressed on Gogglebox. There’s an irreverent energy, or earnest sincerity that can come across in what appear to be ‘unmediated’ public opinion. And unlike radio phone in shows, or television programmes like Question Time, they tend not to come with a high ranty factor.
But focus groups aren’t unmediated – they are ‘cast’, just as much as any QT, and they are led, too, by the questions asked, the steer of discussion, and, however skilled the leader of the group, by dominant individuals in the group, or even just the order in which people speak. There’s a tendency for a group of strangers, without a politician to shout at, to be polite, and to be reluctant to disagree with, or challenge one another. It’s a pull towards conformity with one’s peers, even if it means holding one’s tongue.
Moreover, most people aren’t political obsessives. Even if they watch the news, read a newspaper, they aren’t necessarily much engaged with, or even very informed about, what they read. What people pick up, whether from advertising or from the news, are slogans, and simple narratives.
The Conservative Party has been ruthless about refining what John McDonnell rightly called “misleading analogies”, like Labour “maxed out the credit card”, “spent all the money”, even that Labour, not the international banking system, ‘caused’ the crash of 2008.
Brexit was another successful exercise in telling compelling stories, honing memorable slogans. The Covid pandemic has been successfully sold as “no one could have seen anything like that coming”, and “Boris did his best”, and “we led the world at vaccinating people”. All these stories are demonstrably wrong, but people know them, and they haven’t heard convincing alternatives.
In other words, the Tories dominate the parameters of popular political discourse. Which has consequences for the focus group.
If I got put into a focus group discussing football, I would know nothing about football. I’m not a fan, I don’t watch it, I’d struggle to name a player who wasn’t involved in politics (fortunately quite a few are these days). If put on the spot with a question, I’d reach for whatever has permeated my skull. Manchester United, Liverpool, Spurs, Arsenal. I’d have a benign view of the England team, and I’d remember the name of the manager. Asked about Scotland or Wales, I’d be stumped.
That’s probably how most members of focus groups are. They know what’s in the ether. And what’s in the ether when it comes to politics tends to come from a Tory-supporting perspective.
Which surely must lead to the conclusion that focus groups are an expensive way of amplifying a Tory hegemony in public discourse, which offer no serious evidence of how to challenge it. Listening to their ‘wisdom’ entrenches the Conservative hold on our politics, and stops Labour, and any other party wasting their money on such ‘research’, from doing the things they can do to change the political weather.
If public opinion in the past, as measured at the time, had been ‘respected’ as it is now, we’d never have had a raised school leaving age, votes below 21, the end of the death penalty and theatre censorship, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, race relations legislation, equal pay, equal marriage, and much else. These things happened because enlightened politicians, who recognised the truth that democracy isn’t dictatorship of the majority (like Brexit), but a guarantor of minority rights, used political leadership and statecraft to steer the country along a better course.
Political leadership soon convinced most voters that initially controversial changes were the right thing to do. Political followership, which is what reliance on focus groups involves, is a dead end. It permits the worst, most reactionary instincts to hold a veto on change.
The Total Politics approach to gaming elections is cynical, narrow of vision, unambitious, and rigged in favour of a wholly unsatisfactory status quo. With one of its exponents leading Labour’s “strategy”, the party is paying to take an expensive ride on a road to nowhere.