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The left's favourite Tories: Margaret Thatcher

When I ask voters which leadership qualities they most value, they put integrity, decisiveness and strong communications at the top of the list. Judged against these criteria - and in a competitive set that includes Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela and Richard Branson - Margaret Thatcher (born 1925) comes second only to Winston Churchill.

Polls tell us that her greatest attribute is being "tough" and, in focus groups, voters often use words such as tough or strong to describe her. There is much admiring talk of her as the right kind of leader for difficult times, in economic downturn or war.

Her high scores in one poll of 26 per cent for "tough" and 18 per cent for "decisive" contrast with a very poor 1 per cent for the fourth most desirable leadership quality: listening. Yet it is for her listening skills that I most admire her.

At a time when most politicians were resolutely in transmit mode, Mrs Thatcher alone had the foresight to see the value of listening to voters. Advised by the communications guru Timothy Bell, she was the first UK politician to commission focus groups and, in doing so, get the measure of Middle England's aspirations.

While Labour looked backwards and inwards, Mrs Thatcher looked outwards and listened. She heard the importance of bettering yourself, generation on generation. She heard that home ownership was the single most important symbol of this for ordinary working families. She heard about the pride and sense of self-worth that came from achieving this goal.

And she didn't just listen. She didn't make speeches telling people that she was listening, either - often the biggest clue to the voter that a politician is doing anything but. She just got on and made a difference. Her decisive action in direct response to voters' needs spoke much more eloquently than words could ever have done. It said: "I understand you, I'm right there with you, I care about what you care about." And, much more importantly: "I'm going to do something about it."

More than 20 years on, stop anyone in the street and ask them what they know about Thatcher. The chances are that they'll tell you about the right-to-buy policy. If they were lucky enough to be the first member of their family to become a homeowner, they'll also be likely to tell you about how it changed things for the better, for ever. It is this that the British will always admire her for - not listening as an end in itself, but listening and acting on what she heard. And it's why I admire her, too.

Deborah Mattinson is director and co-founder of BritainThinks.

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?