The citizens of pre-revolutionary St Petersburg didn't mark themselves as holy fools when they said they needed an accurate account of what Rasputin said in his ramblings to the tsarina and tsar. Politically literate Washingtonians did not have to believe in astrology to be hungry for the predictions of Nancy Reagan's star-plotter. Those who have the ear of rulers have power. The ruled have no choice but to find out what is being whispered in the hope that they can take evasive action.
Tony Blair's pollster, Philip Gould, doesn't look as if he receives messages from God or the planets. He presents himself in his autobiography as a technocrat who uses the machine tools of focus groups to probe popular sentiment. Gould is a partner in GGC-NOP, a consultancy he runs with Stanley Greenberg and James Carville, two of Bill Clinton's sidekicks. His work for politicians and businesses is commercial and confidential. Fortunately, he is unable to master an office shredder, and his memos are always leaking to the press. They show him to be as hysterical as the leader of a millennial sect. In 1999, he warned the Prime Minister that the Tories would make themselves "more electable" in 2001 by attacking new Labour on Europe. As predictions go, this was up there with visions that new-technology shares would rise forever and the millennium bug would bring the world to its knees.
At a Chequers summit at the beginning of June this year, Gould presented Blair, Bill Clinton and various Continental Third-Wayers with a vision of the future which was far more frightening than the phantom Tory menace. A new stereotype, "Angry Young Working-Class Man", was bringing neo-Nazism to Britain. His predictions weren't mere quackery, the Sunday Times assured us when it broke the news. Gould had produced "recent private-polling and focus-group evidence that showed how there was a real possibility of a surge in support among the working class for popular nationalism based on fears about crime and immigration".
Angry Young Working-Class Man had arrived. He had the same instant appeal as "Worcester Woman" and "Essex Man". A portmanteau label must be superficially plausible if it is to prosper; it must catch the attention of the political classes and the media and make them exclaim: "Yes! That puts it in a nutshell."
Ever since Margaret Thatcher pillaged industrial Britain, feminists and a few of the more perceptive social authoritarians have noted a crisis in working-class masculinity. Secure jobs in manufacturing had gone.Women no longer wanted to marry idlers who could not be good providers. Young men were being humiliated by being forced to live with their parents, with only football and lager to compensate for their collapse in status. They resented the supposed privileges granted to ethnic minorities, as those on the penultimate rung of the ladder always resent those below them.
Anecdote confirms the theorising. Just before the last election, I bumped into a man in the de-industrialised slums of Sunderland who was far more politically aware than many of my colleagues. He would have been a shop steward or Labour councillor in another time. As it was, he was unemployed. Along with the vast majority of his neighbours, he planned to stay away from the polling booths. "So you won't be staying up to watch the election-night coverage?" I asked. On the contrary, he would watch every minute because he "liked to hear their lies". He wasn't apathetic, but angry, and pundits and politicians in London may be feeling unaccustomed pangs of guilt about how he got to be that way.
Both main parties bend the knee before the rich, and regard Middle England as the sole constituency to be flattered. Meanwhile, the remnants of the centre left emphasise the sufferings of women, blacks and Asians, but take little account of the oppression of white, working-class men. If they see them at all, it is through suspicious eyes, as possible rapists or racists. The time when social democrats and the far left hailed the workers as the creators of wealth and harbingers of a new society is an epoch away. In these circumstances, it makes sense to predict that enraged young whites may turn nasty and Nazi. And let's not kid ourselves, fear as well as guilt is at play. Gould's stereotype confirms the quiet dread of the middle class for what postmodern sociologists clumsily call "the other": in this case, the brutes who depress school standards and make us fit bars to our windows.
What to do about Angry Young Working-Class Man has caused yet more tension between the ever-bickering Blairites and Brownites, as John Kampfner reports (page 8) and Peter Riddell noted in the Times. The PM, Gould and David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, hold that insecurity should be tackled with yet more prisons for criminals and asylum-seekers. Gordon Brown wants to free the unemployed from dangerous resentments by giving them better education and training.
The Chancellor has good cause to be wary of Gould's work. The focus groupie isn't just saying there are many angry and young working-class men, but making the large claim that they are turning to modern fascism. The Sunday Times reported that the formidably authoritative National Centre for Social Research supported his warning. It had found that "on race, nearly 40 per cent [of working-class voters interviewed] believed that attempts to give equal opportunities to blacks and Asians had 'gone too far', compared with 30 per cent of the middle classes".
Frank Dobson, who organises Labour's campaigns against the BNP, read the article with alarm. He asked Roger Jowell, the director of the centre, whether he should be preparing for Nuremberg rallies from Newham to Newcastle. Jowell told him not to fret. As so often with the Sunday Times, the figures were true but misleading. They had been dug out of an old British Social Attitudes survey. If the paper had wanted to spoil its story, it might have added that the percentage of the population which said it was very racist or a little racist has been declining in the annual surveys since 1984. The young, from all classes, were the least prejudiced of all. The centre had indeed found that the working class was slightly more prejudiced than the middle class, but the most prejudiced of all were the self-employed - the petit bourgeoisie, who usually provide the foot soldiers for far-right parties.
This hard-won knowledge appears to have been forgotten. To the surprise of commentators, one of the three seats that the BNP won in the May local elections was an affluent suburb of Burnley where there was scarcely a black or brown face to be seen. The small victory does not, however, allow us to replace Angry Young Working-Class Man with a lower-middle-class substitute. The BNP did pitifully in the latest local and general elections. Its paltry successes cannot compare with the triumphs of the European far right.
The temptation at this point is to emit a contemptuous guffaw and dismiss Gould and his kind as pseudo- scientists who can be safely ignored. Complacency, however, is dangerous on two counts. First, because all the fantasy figures that pollsters and journalists insist must be pandered to are from the right - with the partial exception of Worcester Woman. Not a single label encapsulates the social liberalisation of the past 40 years. If you had a softer heart than mine, you could weep for the Tories, who know they must stop giving the impression that they neither like nor understand most of the country, but have no conception of who to appeal to, or how.
Then there are the consequences of pigeon-hole politics. Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman are just crass summaries of the obvious point that, in a first-past-the-post system, the views of swing voters in marginal seats have far greater weight than the opinions of the rest of the country. You might think that "Angry Young Working Class Man" is a small advance. It is a distortion and a slander, but at least Gould is worrying about men who don't vote or, if they do, usually vote in safe Labour constituencies where their choices make no difference.
Or is he? Think about what Gould does not say. He does not say that working-class disaffection should be assuaged with stronger union rights, a higher minimum wage, more representation in politics, better public services, or Brown's efforts to solve problems by throwing teachers at them. Instead, he says ministers must take up the role of defenders of the working class by being even tougher on crime and foreigners. And these are the very same policies that Gould insists are essential if the owner-occupiers of Middle England are to continue to trust Labour to keep the Mondeos unmolested in the drives of their pebble-dashed houses.