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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