You are hereFocus groups won’t win you our love, boys
Focus groups won’t win you our love, boys
So nobody likes anybody. Across the entire range of parties and political leaders, there is scarcely a scintilla of approval from the electorate. The liveliest competition of the moment seems to be the race to the bottom: who can actually manage to out-do all of his rivals to achieve the nadir of voter approbation? Will Dave on his poll approval rating of minus 30-something eventually overtake Ed, currently on minus 40-something, to arrive at the ultimate wooden spoon destination of having no supporters at all?
Even given the circumstances – economic crisis requiring unpleasant decisions, coalition government paralysed by stalemate, etc – this degree of unpopularity is startling. I can’t recall a time when the entire political class was in such uniform, unrelieved disrepute that even a possible change of government seemed to offer, so far as most people appear to believe, no expectation of relief.
This is odd, when you think of it. Never before in political history has more attention apparently been paid to the systematic study of public preferences. The observation, analysis and deconstruction of voters’ opinions are now pseudo-science with a body of theoretical texts and methodology. The operation of focus groups and the design of opinion polling, as well as the interpretation of their results, has become the province of technical wizards who occupy positions of huge influence in every party’s hierarchy.
One cult work of junk sociology – sorry, study of mass behaviour – follows another, each bearing the revealed truth of the moment on how and why people respond in the way that they do to national events and political initiatives. The resources of time and energy devoted to assessing and predicting how the public will react to even the most trivial aspects of a politician’s appearance and manner are the stuff of satire on two continents. Indeed, the most common complaint about modern politicians is that they are more inclined to follow public opinion than to trust their own convictions and lead it.
So how on earth have we got here? How did all this quasi-academic analysing and objective monitoring of popular feeling manage to produce the most unloved generation of political leaders in living memory? Could it be that the question contains the answer within itself? That the very business of turning politics into a hyper-sophisticated branch of mass marketing, replete with state-of-the-art techniques for product testing and opinion sampling, has made it repugnant and alienating?
To suggest this, of course, is to say nothing new. Complaints about the implicit cynicism of turning the democratic process into a species of advertising campaign have been resounding through Westminster (and Washington, where it all began) since the advent of the word “spin”. But there may be more to this than a simple dislike of the notion that principle should be replaced by pandering.
It could be that the basic concept is flawed: that public opinion is far more fluid, dynamic and elusive than the techniques which are being used to measure and manipulate it allow. In fact, it may be that the very act of studying it – of creating the artificial conditions in which it can be studied – affects the results in quite misleading ways. Focus groups are surely influenced (as are all juries) by the most articulate and forceful people in their midst. I have always wanted to conduct an experiment in which the same exceptionally eloquent speaker was planted in two focus groups, making precisely opposite arguments in each case. Would both groups follow his lead and thus produce exactly opposite conclusions?
But even if the wizards claim that they can eliminate, or discount, such a possibility, can they ever remove the fundamental social self-consciousness that participation in this kind of exercise involves? Do people necessarily say what they truly believe, or express their most visceral feelings on controversial issues, among a group of strangers with whose views they are unfamiliar – as opposed to among their family and like-minded friends?
The theory is that what is said under such constrained, laboratory conditions actually constitutes a pure, objective reality as opposed to the sloppy anecdotal business of people talking in the bus queue or at the pub or even in the MP’s surgery. But does it? Isn’t the more natural, uninhibited setting of a real conversation more likely to give genuine insight into what voters think and want?
And, for that matter, do respondents in opinion polling actually tell the full and unvarnished truth when asked for their views on, say, poverty or social equality where the media have made certain kinds of robust views virtually unutterable? Even assuming that the questions are not leading, and the interpretations not tendentious, can any sampling technique ever capture the full, vital mix of emotion and reason, inconsistency and human sympathy which constitutes “public opinion” in its constant mercurial flux?
Using faux-scientific, artificial contrivances can surely only lead to artificial results which have the pernicious appearance of scientific truth – and can thus be used to silence those who believe they have a sound grasp of what voters actually want that is based on real-life encounters.
Many MPs, who report to their party HQs having been accosted in the street, button-holed in their constituencies and harangued in their surgeries by voters expressing their dissatisfaction with policy, are confronted by the robotic rebuff: “Focus-group-says-no.” Although, oddly enough, this apparently incontrovertible dictum never seems to sink policies which the wizards have decided – with no objective evidence – will make their party more acceptable to the electorate (viz gay marriage for the Tories; opposition to welfare cuts for Labour). It may be significant that the “purely objective” evidence is only ever used to rebuff opinions which are considered to be undesirable by the leadership – for reasons that are subjective and often highly personal.
All of this stuff, as I noted earlier, first gained credibility in the US with Bill Clinton’s successful campaign for the presidency. Nobody seems to recollect that Clinton was a stupendously compelling political personality who would probably have won office without all the pseudo-science. And the people who overlook that fact also forget that John Major won the most unlikely election victory in British post-war history by standing on a soap box and talking directly to people in the street. There has to be a lesson in there somewhere. By Janet Daley