I have good news for those who seek harmony in creation and reject chaos, who believe that all things in our universe may be seen to be interconnected and interdependent if only we might penetrate the fog of our misunderstanding. My word of comfort is this: unlikely though it may seem, there is a thread linking a group of well-upholstered ladies in their underwear to a group of Conservative MPs without their neckties.
No, this is not a return to family values of the kind that besmirched the Major administration, it is marketing; more particularly it is an aspect of marketing that has come to be seen as applicable to politics; it is the focus group: that nucleus of opinion, which, in the view of marketers, has the property of infinite expansion. What is found to be true of three or four gathered together may be held to be universally valid.
Thus when the beauty preparations company Dove brought together a number of women and asked them how they would like members of their sex to be portrayed in advertisements, they responded by requesting versions of themselves. They did not want to see slender, curvaceous models with alabastrine complexions and perfectly symmetrical features: such impossible ideals made them feel uncomfortable and, if truth be told, a little jealous.
Come down to earth, they said, be more real, show women as we are, shaped and fashioned by nature, not in conformity with some Grecian template.
Right ho, said the adpersons, ever obliging and with pious deference to the focus group, let us create ads peopled by real women, chunky, fleshy and gloriously feminine in their unpredictable diversity.
And was the oracle wrong? Of course not! The focus group had done its stuff and sales of “New Dove Firming. As tested on real curves” soared.
Somewhere in Conservative Central Office the honest appeal of the firmer, rounder woman was noticed. True, Conservative men of the kind who for generations had snoozed in the smoking rooms of Whites and the Athenaeum, had an uncanny, almost intuitive, appreciation of firm, round women, but this was different: today’s Conservatives were thinkers and they wanted to get behind the large lady, so to speak, and find out what made the Dove commercials work.
The answer, of course, was the focus group. Not that that was a complete novelty: New Labour had attained government through focus groups, though the result was not a gaggle of bouncy, fun-loving Junos; far from it, the result was Tessa Jowell, Margaret Beckett and Patricia Hewitt, which was not so much deviating from the ideal as deserting it entirely.
The lesson the Conservatives took from the Dove ads was that people, in this case voters, want those in the public eye to be more like themselves. They don’t wish to be made to feel inferior by being confronted with unalloyed perfection.
Now, I hear what you’re going to say: since when has a politician been anything other than a minger? And you have a point. Nevertheless, politicians with few exceptions tend to appear stuffy. This is because they are stuffy: that’s what comes of an irrepressible thirst for power, however small the quantity, and a belief that fate has chosen you as the instrument of change, the means by which the shores of Utopia will be landed.
The focus group reminds politicians that they are stuffy. It also tells them they are remote, distrusted, in it for themselves, rancorous and argumentative. So, like the ladies in the Dove ads, they want to be normal. And that is why the Conservatives have taken off their ties.
To be more precise, that is why those who wish to contest the leadership of the party have taken off their ties. Recently, John Redwood, Liam Fox, David Davies, Andrew Lansley, David Cameron and Francis Maude all appeared in public wearing suits but with their shirts open-necked.
They believe that to be thus unattired is to be modern, relaxed, human, approachable and utterly unstuffy. Like the ladies in the Dove ads who stripped to their bras and knickers and won admiration, the Tories without ties hope that they, too, will be seen as somehow more real.
Needless to say, it’s nonsense. When your thighs and buttocks are rounder than those of the Venus de Milo and in need of a little firming, you will happily identify with a chubby model. When you want safer streets, cleaner hospitals, and a bigger pension, you need a politician without a tie like a rattlesnake needs a castanet.