Talking to a Brick Wall

After the view from the foothills (in my first volume of diaries), and as we await the view from the Olympian heights (Blair's memoir will follow Mandelson's in September), comes the view from the focus group.

As with John O'Farrell's Things Can Only Get Better, the story begins in Battersea Constituency Labour Party in the mid-1980s. Deborah Mattinson, a young advertising executive, attends her first branch meeting and is horrified to find that it consists of a handful of freaky males, obsessing about process rather than practical action, and generally out of touch with the community they aspire to serve.

A nationwide survey of Labour Party members suggested that the problem was not confined to Battersea. "Labour activists," the survey concluded, "were a cobbled-together coalition of a wide range of views many of which would have been unrecognisable to most ordinary voters." Or, to put it another way, "basically they were all a bit weird".

Instead of running a mile, Mattinson decided to see what could be done. She soon found herself recruited by the pollster Philip Gould to help run something called the Shadow Communications Agency, which had been tasked with helping to make Labour electable again. Thus was born the focus group, a phenomenon familiar to advertising agencies, but hitherto unknown in the world of British politics.

It took a while to catch on, especially as the evidence from early focus groups suggested that Neil Kinnock, not the Militant Tendency, was one of the principal drags on Labour's electoral credibility. John Smith wasn't keen, either. "They're all Tories," he spluttered after observing a conclave of whingeing Middle Englanders in Essex. It wasn't until Blair and Brown took over in 1994 that the party began to take focus groups seriously. For most of the next 16 years there was scarcely a domestic policy announcement that had not first been road-tested on Middle England. Reading Mattinson's fascinating account of her work, I recognised many of the themes and fatuous slogans (remember all that guff about "hard-working families"?) which featured in Blair and Brown's pronouncements over the years.

The news from the front was relentlessly depressing. Despite being healthier and wealthier than any previous generation, the C1 and C2 (to use the ghastly parlance of the advertising industry) swing voters mostly thought of themselves as victims. One of their main gripes was that, while the Tories looked after the rich, Labour was too concerned with the poor and the undeserving and "no one looks after people like us". They loathed politics and politicians (even before the Great Expenses Meltdown). Everyone wanted better public services, but few, if any, were willing to pay higher taxes to fund them. There was little or no interest in the environment or the state of the planet generally. Later, concern about immigration became a large ingredient in this toxic mix. And on top of it all was a shocking level of ignorance about the workings of the democratic process.

It is easy to mock New Labour for allowing focus groupery to eclipse idealism, but this is politics in an age of majority affluence. For better or worse, the C1s and C2s are the people who have to be won over by any party hoping to form a government. Besides which, if you have just lost four elections in a row, it does seem a good idea to consult and even occasionally to compromise with the electorate. Some of the conclusions are unsurprising, but it is useful to see them reinforced: outside of the Westminster village, there is little interest in the cut and thrust of politics - who is up, who is down, who said what to whom. But women, in particular, are interested in changes that affect the family directly - the Working Families Tax Credit and increased investment in childcare under Labour, for instance, were popular.

The interesting question is whether reliance on focus groups has gone too far. Is there any longer a case for strong, principled leadership in British politics or is it merely the job of politicians to follow, rather than lead? Must we for ever be in thrall to the tabloid virus? Besides which, focus groups can be fickle - barely three years ago they were singing the praises of Gordon Brown.

One result has been that politicians are increasingly reluctant to confront the electorate with inconvenient truths. Representatives of all parties have encouraged people to believe that they can have European levels of public service in return for American levels of taxation. We have just come through a general election in which no rational debate about taxation was possible, even though anyone of average intelligence knew that it was the central issue.

Is this all the fault of we despised, inadequate politicians? Or might there be other culprits? Mattinson addresses this question head on. "The voter is not without blame in this unhappy saga," she writes. "Always ready to complain, but unwilling to roll up their own sleeves, the electorate has colluded with the political parties to create a world of Peter Pan politics: where the voter lives in a perpetual childlike state and never grows up."

As a result, we live in a country where no one wants to join a political party, no one wants to donate, no one wants their taxes to be used to help fund political parties, but everyone wants to live in a democracy. Sooner or later, something is going to have to give.

Talking to a Brick Wall: How New Labour Stopped Listening to the Voter and Why We Need a New Politics
Deborah Mattinson
Biteback, 336pp, £17.99

Chris Mullin was MP for Sunderland South from 1987-2010. The first volume of his diaries, "A View from the Foothills", was published last year (Profile Books, £20). A second volume, "Decline and Fall", is due in September.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain