Talking to a brick wall: how to make politicians listen?

It took me a long time to warm to advertising agencies. The first time I worked with one I was working in sales management on Fairy Washing Up Liquid. I was due to attend a meeting at which I was to be told what consumers really thought of the brand.

I remember my reluctance to attend. Surely, I reasoned, we already knew the answer to this question as millions of consumers picked up the dark green bottles off the shelf every week. Over the subsequent years I learned that understanding of the consumer was the main reason that brands like this do so well.

This journey has started again. In opposition I have to measure success by votes cast, not purchases in a shop. So the role of voter research is as interesting to me now as it was then. But if it has a role in understanding why shoppers buy washing up liquid is it of any help in understanding how they vote?

Talking to a Brick Wall: Why We Don’t Believe Politicians and How to Make Them Listen To Us by Deborah Mattinson looks to answer this question. The author was a chief pollster to Gordon Brown and closely involved in polling that influenced the creation of New Labour.

If ‘The Unfinished Revolution’ by Philip Gould (or Baron Gould of Brookwood as he is now known) heralded the use of this research in the rise of the New Labour this book analyses the use of the same techniques as this era drew to a close.

Mattinson is clear that she started this work as a volunteer and party member. She is no hired gun. It is refreshing to see the forensic approach of a professional mixed with that of someone who cares about politics.

The book commences with focus groups in the early 1980s. A Labour politician was someone who drank light ale, wore a cloth cap, only enjoyed the Mirror and holidayed in Blackpool. The centrality of floating and women voters in the rise of New Labour is extensively reviewed. The Millenium Dome symbolized the growing disillusion of both of these groups.

The author welcomed Gordon Brown as an antidote to this mire. Project 3D was developed to ‘develop a more three-dimensional image for GB’. The growing appeal of David Cameron saw Project Volvo hatched, to develop an image that was ‘solid, reliable..(and).. does what it says on the tin’.

The use of this research in policy making is honestly discussed. When reviewing the 2007 budget the author notes that ‘this was the tenth budget that I had worked on for GB. It was the most important, but unfortunately, the least effective’. The choice between reform of inheritance tax and abolition of the 10p rate of tax is evaluated purely in electoral terms.

This emphasizes the key question in relation to the use of this research. Are the use of ‘spin doctors’ and focus groups the ultimate symbol of vacuous politics, a sign of prioritizing image over substance?

The answer is No. If politicians use focus groups to dictate policy it is the fault of the policy makers not those who do the research.

Government is about decision making. But, communication is a close second priority. It is not enough that there be a plan, citizens must know there is a plan and under-stand it.

Citizens need to be secure. Communication plays a vital part in this process. This research helps with this work. But politicians must not forget who makes the decision and must not forget the role of political philosophy and principles in guiding these decisions. Listening to the electorate cannot be confused with leading them.

The book adopts a skeptical tone to politicians. This is well deserved as it seeks to find new ways of re-connecting voters with the system that is meant to represent them. It does occasionally have a somewhat sneering tone. When discussing a Conservative candidate who spent time waving at cars on a major road (a particularly difficult experience as this author can attest) the author writes ‘he won, despite voters’ utter bewilderment – what was the point?’.

Well, he did win!

This is not the work of a hack. That the author is professional is not a sign of cynicism but signals intent to do a job well. As a professional politician the obvious ‘politics of spin’ might be out of fashion but this book does remind the reader that communication is too important to be left to chance.

Paschal Donohoe is a Fine Gael member of Seanad Eireann. Follow him on Twitter at:

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  • Frederick Chichester

    It’s an interesting book. I felt Mattinson fell somewhat into the trap you mentioned – allowing the focus groups to dictate the policy. She seemed to operate on the assumption that the “voter is always right” – which is fair enough in business but not so much in politics. And anyway aren’t a lot of voters rather suspicious of politicians who pander to them? Isn’t that why politicians are seen as fake? All the Volvo stuff was cringeworthy. Mattinson needs to ask how it is that politicians have never been more focus group-obsessed and yet have never been more reviled. Perhaps they should just forget the voters for a while and do what they think is right.

  • “Government is about decision making. But, communication is a close second priority. It is not enough that there be a plan, citizens must know there is a plan and under-stand it.”

    Ok, so in these pending double dip recessionary times, what is the Northern Ireland Assembly Executive Master Plan.

    The citizens have a right to know what they are paying their representatives so handsomely for [just bumming around thinking of master plans, is it not] and if they can’t understand it, then they can ask pertinent questions until such times as they do, to know of the plans and identify the brains at work for them, and which are deciding on the course of their and their children’s and their children’s childrens’ lives.

    And to know of the problems and blockages which prevent them giving the folk what they want and need at zero cost to the taxpayers is another thing which can be openly shared. Or is the new plan, the same as every old plan and to screw more out of the productive sector to pay off or keep on the service sector, and extort money with menaces from them with demands for various taxations, of which the politicians and civil servants are one of the biggest extortionate liabilities, with zero collateralising assets, for their services cannot be bought or sold, but boy, do they know how to charge through the nose for the penpushing and gladhanding and travelling on junkets that they do.

    So come on, spill the beans. It has been deathly quiet here for months now throughout the summer, so there is bound to be something masterful you have been working on, surely, for the queen’s shillings/taxpayers’ bread?

  • Oracle

    Fine Gael member of the Seanad….


    And exactly what examples does he give us of politics and consumerism?
    A forign multi-national, British politics and British political observers

  • Book on theme, but on bigger picture, is The Political Brain. American, but fascinating in respect of the nature of the electorate and the importance of messaging. Of course if you have the wrong message….

  • joeCanuck

    To answer the question in the heading; How to make politicians listen?
    There is really only one way and it comes around once every four years or so – Make a sufficient number of them ex-politicians. That gets the attention of the others.

  • Talking to a brick wall: how to make politicians listen?

    —–put them up against a brick wall?

    But seriously, Joe has it right.

  • All democracy has is one vote every four years. It does not seem enough. Personally I think democracy only works well if it is also held to account by lively and independent media.

  • joeCanuck

    Indeed, Pippakin.
    That’s why virtual dictators like Mugabe and would be dictators like Chavez do their best to muzzle the press.

  • Greenflag

    The problem is not making the politicians listen -it’s getting the people to vote . David Cameron was elected British PM with 25% of the electoral vote -Tony Blair at most got 33% . Barack Obama was elected USA President with less than 30% of the electoral vote .

    Democracy has become ‘plutocracy ‘ in the USA . Corporate lobbyists , bankers , the health insurance con men , Wall St and the military /industrial / pharmaceutical complexes now ‘rule’ . The bottom 40% of America haven’t a pot to piss in and another 35% are being squeezed into virtual indentured servitude . It suits the politicians on all sides that the ‘electorate ‘ isn’t stirred .

    The UK is following suit as the Cameroonians target the eh ‘wasteful ‘ public sector . The freshly ‘unemployed ‘ will of course find ‘new ‘ employment in the wake of the new economic growth spurred by the neo cons -helped no doubt by a fresh war Iran ? on the horizon 🙁

  • Greenflag

    True Joe but Mugabe was just imitating what his white predecessor also practised . We have also seen how the western media ’embedded’ itself with the troops in the invasion of Iraq thus lending any pretence of ‘objectivity’. The fourth estate can be bought off fairly easily -bar a few a very few notable exceptions 🙁

  • joe

    Who knew…

  • Oracle

    Chavez a dictator?? a muzzler of the media…. what an complete right wing idiotiotic thing to state you obviously know very little indeed about Venezula and even less about Hugo the Great

  • joeCanuck

    I want some of what you’re having.
    Besides, don’t you know the meaning of the words “would be”.

  • The Raven

    You go to great geographical distances for this example, Greenflag. The MP for my own manor got elected on 12,000 votes, a mere 21% of the potential electorate in this area.

    And on the other point regarding Cameron and the public sector – it seems that a useful scapegoat has been found. And I can’t help but think that he’s taking the opportunity to finish off what Mrs T didn’t get around to doing. How easily the great-unwashed are hoodwinked; it’s like cows blindly walking into a slaughterhouse.

    And yet, I can’t help thinking that somewhere round the next corner, there’s the opportunity and a stirring undercurrent for a bit of revolution next door on the bigger island. Somebody somewhere is going to have a baby die; or a trolley wait too far for a relative, and something is going to kick off; or enough kids will realise they’ve just signed themselves into servitude for the price of a degree. Naive for sure, but I just think it’s only a matter of time.

  • “So come on, spill the beans. It has been deathly quiet here for months now throughout the summer, so there is bound to be something masterful you have been working on, surely, for the queen’s shillings/taxpayers’ bread?” …. amanfromMars 7 September 2010 at 4:31 pm

    And quite obviously, after hearing Peter Robinson’s pathetic performance on the media regarding his craven submission to swingeing cuts in budgets, because of the Executive’s cowardice, which is probably because of a lack of much wider intelligence than they would presently possess [and I’m being very generously gallant in that concession, and would advise that the missing Intel is easily supplied] in tackling the Banking Sector head on because of their holding of nations to ransom with the myth that there is no money available, whenever every man and his dog know that it is invented out of thin air to enable bankers to hold nations to ransom ….. and to live like kings and queens doing nothing other than creating out of nothing, Chaos in other people’s lives.

    My advice to the First Minister and the Executive is to grow a pair, and stop grovelling like some mangey dog for scraps and start biting at the juicy fat beast, which is making them more like, and taking them for the impotent fool.

    The System was/is acknowledged to be broken and collapsed since three years ago, and was acknowledged as needed to be changed, and NOTHING, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING has been changed, in three years of recession which is now dipping into depression. When that happens, who would want to be a banker or politician, with the angry and abused mob looking for the architects of their misfortune.

    Let’s have some enlightened leadership from the big house at Stormont, for that has never been shown to the people, although that is what it is there for, and that is what it is supposed to house. It is not as a shelter for squatters doing precious little for the people behind its brick walls and taking orders from across the water from others of a similar ilk and intellectual bankruptcy.

  • Greenflag


    I used to think that the USA ‘economy’ and it’s attendant values would not be replicable in the UK but I may have been mistaken .

    The scale of poverty in Britain and the income gap between rich and poor has grown steadily since the 1970’s and is closer to the gap found in the USA than anywhere else in Western Europe . New Labour was supposed to combine the best of the European Social model and American entrepreunership.

    The much hyped Third Way has long since been forgotten as a casualty of the Anglo American global war on terrorism . Under Cameron the new buzz word is the Big Society ? Is Britain’s destiny to be an offshore Texas ready to shoot bang fire whenever the Washington sheriff needs a compliant posse to assist in ‘bringing ‘ democracy’ to the rest of the world while simultaneously doing everything in it’s power to destroy it (democracy) at hole ?

    BTW cows don’t walk blindly into slaughterhouses -they are prodded into the ‘right’ direction . Once in transit there is no turning back .

    I expect Cameron’s ‘big society’ to end much as Thatcher’s ‘ownership ‘ society and as Blair’s ‘cool ‘Britannia. in the usual ‘muddle’ if not imploding from internal policy contradictions then from external ‘black swans’ or unprecedented events .

    Perhaps what we understand by ‘capitalism’ in some western countries (USA & UK) is reaching the end of it’s rope /road at least from the point of view of being a politically acceptable framework within which people will be able to live constructive and productive lives without the need to imprison and exclude large sections of their populations , while emisserating their indigenous middle and working classes by replacing them with the more pliant and higher birth rate producing ‘immigrants ‘ most of whom will eventually supply the next generation of non unionised compliant indentured as the indigenes opt out of the ‘reproduction’ cycle a la the Soviet Union (1930-1990) . Why would anybody want to bring children into a world where their future is earmarked as compliant fodder for the financial sector and/or as a profit/ revenue source for rapacious globalised corporations ?

    Will it come undone ? Nobody predicted the fall of communism in 1989 nor the current economic recession and or property bubble burst . Of course a few individuals knew that things could not continue as they were but they did not have the ear of those in power or if they did they were ignored .

    Capitalism’s so called ‘victory’ in 1989 has been squandered in ruinous triumphalism and wars without end and even now the ‘beast’ can look no further than it’s nose as it contemplates all that ‘sovereign’ oil in Iran 🙁

    Meanwhile in the USA a pastor prepares a public burning of the KORAN while his country continues it’s strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia a country in which it is an offence to carry a bible .

    As KV would say -and so it goes ;(?

  • Greenflag

    Please oh please bring back the preview

    Error above

    ‘ while simultaneously doing everything in it’s power to destroy it (democracy) at hole ?

    should of course read

    ‘while simultaneously doing everything in it’s power to destroy it (democracy) AT HOME ?

  • “would be dictators like Chavez do their best to muzzle the press.”


    Would that be the very same media which cheered on an attempted coup which would have removed the democratically elected Chavez from office.

    You north Americans have a very reactionary way of looking at the southern half of your continent. Yet another case of turning a victim into a perpetrator.

  • Mick Fealty

    Er, Joe’s from Strabane Mick.

  • Barnshee

    “replacing them with the more pliant and higher birth rate producing ‘immigrants ‘ most of whom will eventually supply the next generation of non unionised compliant indentured ”

    Well done –final recognition of the effect of increasing populations on resources and workforce employment opportunities