New Labour seeks divan intervention

You don’t have to be especially worldly-wise to know that a great many things begin life on sofas in suburbia, particularly during power cuts and party political broadcasts. Who knows, your next-door neighbour, or even you, dear reader, may have been conceived in response to just such an onset of tedium.

With what sweet irony, then, is it revealed that the cut-moquette launching pad of many a new Briton is also the platform upon which New Labour genetically engineers its slogans. In the boldest denial yet of the adage that you can’t sell politics like baked beans, Tony Blair’s party is spending much money and effort on qualitative market research.

No longer content merely to canvass opinion on doorsteps nor even to commission large-scale opinion polls, Labour is concentrating its marketing effort on focus groups. At regular intervals up and down the country selected gatherings of no more than eight people are brought together as if for a Tupperware party. Their purpose, however, is to trade not in indestructible salad bowls but political ideas.

According to one report, but for the whirring tape recorder and the presence of two neatly dressed market researchers, the groups might be mistaken for a meeting of a neighbourhood watch committee. But they are putting the cutting edge on New Labour.

There is, for example, good reason to believe that “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, Mr Blair’s most memorable – and, let’s face it – most vacuous aphorism to date, was wrung from the cerebral equivalent of loins on a sofa situated somewhere in Middle England.

Similarly, when the Leader of the Opposition rose in response to the Budget and declared: “What this Government gives with one hand it takes back with the other”, you might have thought the commonplace was all his own work. Not a bit of it. It was the faithful echo of an oft-repeated, sofa-sprung whinge noted repeatedly by market researchers whose neatness of dress and whirringness of tape recorder bear testimony to an unflinching reliability.

Labour’s tactical use of focus groups is designed to help the party hold on to its putative new recruits. The groups of eight comprise men and women who voted Conservative at the last election but now declare a preference for Labour.

Mr Blair, an intelligent, public-school educated man, knows that what people say to opinion pollsters is about as reliable a guide to their true beliefs, feelings and intentions as a relief map of the bumps on their heads, but, sensible though he is, Labour’s leader seems prepared to put more faith in the outcome of group discussions.

In this he is almost certainly mistaken. While market researchers – dress neat, breath fresh, manners beguiling – might well be able to extract something useful about the perceived qualities of, say, a fishfinger, from several hours of good-natured conversational meandering, it is most unlikely that anything of comparable benefit could be derived from a political discussion held in similar circumstances.

At the heart of the discrepancy is the fact that there is a difference between a fishfinger and an economic policy. Some would say there are many differences, but that would complicate the issue still further. The central difference is that a fishfinger, being small, digestible and simple in its content, is readily accessible to sofa-driven conversation whereas an economic policy is not.

Sofas and thought are antithetical. Media experts grasped this point years ago, which explains the content of morning television. (Given that many viewers are themselves seated on sofas, it explains the content of almost all television.)

When the time comes for Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan to bandy words over the telephone with Sandra from Barnstaple (see map on screen with dot marking Barnstaple), do they waste time delving into the PSBR? Of course not. Richard comes straight to the point and, face etched with concern and understanding, asks Sandra if her diaphragm fits.

That is both good television and good sofa. Nothing Mr Blair’s market researchers will do can compare. Of course, it can be argued that it is not issues, nor even the understanding of them, that count.

It is feelings that matter. By bringing a few people together in a cosy room over a glass or two of palatable wine, focus groups can concentrate not on how people think about things but how they “relate” to them. And so they might. But it should be remembered that emotions are transient and ever-changing.

The way in which eight disaffected Conservative voters may pour out their hearts today may be quite different from tomorrow’s prompted outpouring, and no guide at all as to what might happen in the privacy of the ballot booth.

In truth, the electorate is a simple animal. It will vote for whichever party it believes will make it better off, and by better off it means mainly, though not entirely, in a material sense. That is why the Conservatives scan the entrails, though so far in vain, for the feelgood factor. It is their only hope.

It is also why Mr Blair contrives to radiate, like a saintly effulgence, an aura of feelgood concocted on the sofas of suburbia. It is a false and unreliable brew.

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