Monday, January 22, 2007


Here, Peter Wilby illustrates the gulf in understanding between journalists and politicians.

Writing on a subject that I've been onto a lot here (the mutual contempt that appears to have grown up between politicians and the more vocal sections of the public), Wilby covers his arse by name-checking the usual explanations. Among them, he has:

" is not quite enough to say that our politicians turn out to be rotten leaders and bad people, always letting us down. Other explanations for our hatred make more sense. A fiercely competitive media, dedicated to cheap theatrical thrills rather than sustained policy analysis, has induced profound cynicism in the population, which grows further when leading politicians themselves play the media game.

You could argue, too, that the constant scrutiny of 24-hour news makes us over-familiar with politicians. Just as no man can be a hero to his valet, so no leader can be a hero to a voter who, almost daily, sees him (or her) sweating under the TV lights."
Being a journalist, of course, this explanation only has to be put on the table briefly before it can be mysteriously withdrawn. Once that's out of the way, he turns to the real explanation.

In his view, 'nannying' - the way that politicians tell us how to conduct our lives while noticeably ignoring their own advice - explains most of it.

And there is something in this argument. I'd agree that the role of politicians should usually be to pull big levers rather than to micromanage. But there is a particularly influential group of them who believe that they know otherwise. And Wilby would need to come up with better arguments than he has done to contradict them.

When I was a lot more actively involved in the Labour Party in the mid-1990s, there were loads of MPs, candidates and part-builders who used to breeze in and out of the London HQ. There were the dilettantes, the careerists, the lobbyists, the Union hacks, the crypto-trots and hippies, the wonks, and many other subgroups thereof. There were quite a lot of plain nutters as well. Not that I want to generalise or anything.

But the one that everyone watched their backs around were the roundheads. The ones that took grassroots work seriously. Siobhan McDonagh MP was always thought of as one of the high priestesses here. From memory, Luke Akehurst (who blogs here) was another.

According to them, the local party needed to be built. Doors needed to be knocked on, databases updated, core-voters targeted and dragged out on election days. It was a big, painstaking job that involved doorstep work, and a willingness to be seen to take the known concerns of those voters seriously.

Prospective MPs needed an army of dedicated activists knocking on doors. Theirs was an inelegant and unfashionable voice that is almost unheard outside of HQ, but one that dominated and shaped the party at a local level. A voice that also had a significant say in the distribution of political patronage, and all that flows from it. 'Want a safe seat? Forget that Fabian Pamphlet and knock on some fucking doors then!'

A large section of the party were weary and wary of the roundheads. Theirs was a relentless logic. The policies that they advanced were – they claimed - shaped by talking to Labour's core voters (they didn't waste as much time canvassing areas that didn't have a high Labour turnout).

And – even more annoyingly for the Labour’s liberal-left, this realism was hard to dismiss. Because new Labour had another – less respectable – shaper of it’s message - the Focus Group.

Focus Groups were a more sophisticated and savvy way of finding what key voters really wanted - particularly the crucial ones who lived in areas where there was a lower concentration of prospective Labour voters. The ones that would decide the election. Focus Groups were needed because, as any fool knows, people don't tell you what really bothers them. They tell pollsters and canvassers one thing and the ballot box another.

And the received wisdom was that focus groups were evil. They were lazy, dishonest and unprincipled. Their use made Labour worse than a bunch of populists – a party with no principle other than simply gaining power and holding it. Not only that, but they were delivered by people who worked in advertising!

And the reason that the Roundheads were so awkward, was that they were the real viable alternative to focus group-led politics. The Roundheads went and talked to ‘real people’. The kind of people that Labour lefties always said that Labour should be listening to.

And those real people wanted something doing about the noisy threatening twat with the nasty dog who lived two flats down. Those people wanted things banned, and they wanted people locked up. They wanted something to be done, and they read newspapers that wanted action as well.

The Roundheads were happy to recruit them in a campaign against the liberal bourgeois sentimentalism of the more Fabian elements within the party. The ones that dragged out CLP meetings with tedious discussions about Nicaragua when they could be arranging leaflet-drops, ‘blitz’ canvassing and street-stalls.

The Roundheads were prolier-than-thou, and their moral clout grew with every strip of shoe-leather that they went though.

The Focus Group wonks and the Roundheads combined to quieten that large midriff in The Labour Party that thinks of itself as ‘value based’. The one that doesn’t really have a clearly-identified agency, a programme or any credible connection with the people that they claim to represent.

This is what new Labour is. Peter Wilby offers no evidence that his irritation for ‘nannying’ is shared by a wider section of the public than the people that he rubs shoulders with himself. He cites a Private Eye column’s perspective in his defence. He should bin The Eye and watch the more widely-read sections of his own lousy profession. If he did, he’d know that they – and their readers - don’t want politicians who just pull levers. They want someone to do something and quick.

Politicians do have a huge problem in this country. There is no valuable dialogue going on that they can tune into or participate in. They are stuck between what the more outspoken constituents tell them on the doorsteps, and what the alchemists of public opinion analysis will have them believe. Or they can watch the Newsnight Specials, Question Time or even start reading a few of the more popular political blogs!

But, in the meantime, don’t be surprised if they keep ‘nannying’ until that particular problem is fixed.


Cian said...

I'll let you into a little secret about polling/focus groups/ethnography/interviews/questionnaires.

There's no magic bullet. Each approach has its strengths and failures, takes time (both to conduct and to analyse), and ultimately each approach is more art than science. The skills of the practitioner make a huge difference, and are not things that are easily quantifiable/measurable. This is why when conducting serious, rigorous social research of any kind, one tries to triangulate the data from as many sources as possible - and why the reliable data is always fairly old.

So for example. Big problem with focus groups - loud mouths tend to monopolise the discussions. They are very susceptable to group think. Quiet and introspective people tend not to offer their views (or offer views which fit well with the group think of the focus group as a whole). In many ways they share the same problems that talk shows and CiF boards do. There are things that you can do to minimise this, and some focus group (but by no means all) runners do these. But then these raise the costs, increase the time taken, etc, etc. And then of course there's the age old problem that what people say they do (or want), and what they actually do are often very different.

There are further problems connected to any form of research that involves asking questions - that by asking questions you bias the response, and the type of question asked can have a huge effect. That its hard to ask certain questions and not get the response that something should be done (but this doesn't mean that before you arrived with your shiny polling suit, the pollee had given it much thought).

So while the data you get from such methods is undeniably useful, it is not something that is particularly clean, or reliable. Its rarely actionable, though many people (including large, aggressive, corporations) have lost their shirts assuming otherwise.

Cian said...

I don't think there is a huge gulf between political journalists and politicians. They lunch and socialise together, share many of the same friends and their careers tend to be linked. I think there is a huge gulf between political journalists and the public, but then there is between us and politicians (and indeed the rest of our fairly unaccountable elites). The stories filed by most political journalists are closer to gossip columns (who leaked who, which gang is closer to which gang), or even the kinds of conversations about office politics that many of us have around the water cooler. They're too close to their subjects and have gone native - but then this has always been a problem lobby journalists, nothing new there.

Most people don't care about these stories and probably don't read them (as judged by the fact that most people don't know who the people discussed in such columns are). They care about issues, and in a fairly non-ideological way. They want a school that's pretty good that they can send their children to. They want a hospital that cures them. They want an economy with good jobs. They want streets that are clean - and yes, they want the problem neighbours down the street dealt with. They don't care particularly about ideology (but they got it in spades from Blair).

Also, disconcertingly for our government who have convinced themselves otherwise, they care about "values" and "character". They may not be particularly good judges of either (as noted by the beatification of Lady Di), but they still care about them. They don't like what they see as hypocrites, or what they see as corruption. And they judge it, not the tedious Martin Kettle's of the commentariat.

I don't particularly agree with Wilby (though I think he's partially right - the nannying of certain ministers doesn't help). Brown is still very popular, Blair isn't. This has to mean something. Brown has received plenty of criticism from the tabloids, but most of it has bounced off. I don't hold any great admiration for Brown*, but almost uniquely he has survived mostly intact. I don't think your story of "Bad Media" adequately explains this.

As for your definition of what new Labour is. Then how do you explain its ideological components. The belief that the only solution to problems is the market. The obsession with targets? The way that MBA jargon/speak has embedded itself in their lexicon? Why the utterly bizarre obsession with pushing the new gambling bill through, despite the fact that there's no demand for such a thing. Did these focus groups really demand PFI, city academies? When popular sentiment was so against these things, why did they keep pushing?

And as I'm started - why the fuck were they so keen on building a huge number of homes east of London on a fucking flood plain. I mean, that's just incompetence on a gross scale.

*I think luck played a huge part in his success as Chancellor, and his skill was largely in knowing when to leave well alone. He has also presided over a very dangerous and unncessary bubble in house prices, been responsible for PFI and the general collapse in British industry (still far more important to this country's economy than the city - years of both decline and city propoganda not withstanding).

Daniel said...

is not quite enough to say that our politicians turn out to be rotten leaders and bad people, always letting us down

Why isn't it quite enough? The prevalence of rotten leaders and bad people that we've had over the last ten years seems to me to be quite a serious problem, and it's not as if things couldn't have been different; the specific bad things that Blair did were things that he chose to do and he could have chosen different.

And I completely agree with Cian that your central, Birtist thesis is not actually true and doesn't have much evidence in its favour. People always want things to be better, but they don't anve haven't demanded any of the big wholesale reorganisations that the NHS and the education system have been through. No major newspaper asked for a smoking ban. No major newspaper was in favour of ASBOs - if anything, they go the other way, constantly telling us that the only possible criminological strategy is to pay people to walk in circles.

The strategy of "rapid response" to newspaper headlines was one that Labour coined in opposition. It was IIRC a Peter Mandelson idea. Practically, it was a disaster. Politically, it worked to begin with, then it stopped working as some of the results of the first tranche of initiatives came in, and now it probably does the opposite of working as all the chickens have come home to roost. This is not exactly unfamiliar from the management science literature on "stretch targets" and such like. But it wasn't the media that invented this political strategy. Why not blame the people whose fault it actually was?

Paulie said...

I don't think that I've argued that the government have actual policies dictated to them by focus groups / polls / doorsteps have I?

I've covered the question of 'is poor quality politics something systematic or are we unlucky with our leaders' in a post here a few weeks ago:

A while ago, I posted on why politicians thought that they needed to do more than they really do - here:

Daniel, your grasp of what is wrong with government, and how they should do it better seems very confident. I'm sure that you could stand for election yourself, win, and do a better job that the current lot. I can't think why you're wasting your time in the comments-boxes of low-readership weblogs.

And what is my 'Birtist' thesis, pray? I'm dying to know.

dd said...

Paulie, those links are just to you, saying the same thing. You're not providing any evidence at all.

Your thesis is Birtist because it is a direct lineal descendant (via John Lloyd and David Aaronovitch) of the motivating idea of John Birt and Brian Walden when they produced "Weekend World" in the 1970s. It's the thesis that the media has a "bias against understanding", and that politicians are driven into bad policies because of media demagoguery. It was weak then and weak now because it assumes a lack of agency or leadership in precisely those people who have no function other than to provide leadership.

Strangely, in the world of business, we are also often faced with illogical populist demands from journalists who don't understand things properly. However, we don't, in general, react to this by making massive changes to our business model in support of grandiose promises that can't really be delivered. This is because that's a stupid thing to do. If Blair was in charge of Ryanair, he would be telling us that in the near future, we'd all have eight feet of leg room and the planes would emit zero carbon.

Seriously - this is how Enron got into such trouble. They faced demands to "make the quarterly numbers" which they couldn't meet. They had a choice, which was to either show some character and face the bad news, or to start deceiving. They made their choice, and it looks very much like Blair (not Brown and not some others in government) have made the same choice.

Cian said...

Hmm, in one of the posts that you link to you argue that people are more interested in party politics than policy. I think this says more about your circle of acquaintances than the population in general (or maybe you're mistaking the focus of the media, for the focus of the population at large). As I argued above, I simply don't see this. And the Liberal Democrats present a strong counter example. They've done very well at a local level by focusing on local issues of policy, and getting things done when in power. Obvious things that affect people, such as playgrounds, roads, rubbish collection. Not that the bigger things don't count as well, but if you can't get the small things right, people aren't going to believe you about the larger stuff (which it is harder for them to judge).

Now I have my personal suspicions about why Labour have failed. Partly it is I think because your Roundheads tried to apply the tatics of fighting an election to governing, where it simply doesn't work, or is inappropriate (as somebody once pointed out about business marketing - successful companies with good products don't have to tell people how great they are, people know. Its only those companies with negligible market share, or large companies with crap products that have to do that). Partly because Labour's ruling elites have bought into the ideological religiosity of managerialism and neoliberalism. And partly because they tried to cheat (PFI is a good example of this. In a different era they would simply have printed money to pay for promised public works).

Cian said...

No, you argued that "Focus Groups were a more sophisticated and savvy way of finding what key voters really wanted... Focus Groups were needed because, as any fool knows, people don't tell you what really bothers them. They tell pollsters and canvassers one thing and the ballot box another."

Ignoring the unreliability of focus groups (some of which I addressed above), this implys that focus groups enabled the government to find out what people wanted and so respond. Now unless all the focus groups said was that they wanted better schools, hospitals, etc (in which case that was an expensive way of discovering some pretty banal and obvious truths), this has to have had some affect on the policies chosen. Maybe groups were offered different policy choices, maybe they suggested some ideas which were picked up on and developed. It doesn't matter.

Anyway, if this such an effective and "adult" way of doing politics, why have Labour pursued so many unpopular policies? Why are they so ideological at their core? Why do they propose ideas that if they had such a good handle on public perceptions they would always have known would be a problem (bringing markets into hospitals). There appears to be an unsustainable contradiction here.

As an outsider, my guess would be that the focus groups are used tactically - as a way of uncovering the best way to market policies. However given that New Labours core motivating ideas are standard neoliberalism with a few superficial warm and fuzzies imported from Giddens, all that really distinguishes them from the Trots, Sparts, etc - is that they are better at marketing themselves, they're no less ideological and their ideology is not noticably better (just different). Now marketing matters up to a point, but it won't help you if your product is crap. And if your marketing continues to insist that its the greatest thing ever, then all you create is consumer cynicism about your brand. Which is roughly what has happened to New Labour. What's sustained them is the public perception that Gordon Brown has delivered, which is why he's still fairly popular. People care about policy delivery, and as far as they're concerned a successful economy is a policy successfully delivered.

Paulie said...


We're slightly at cross purposes here. I've been a bit busy and I didn't reply to your first comment about focus groups - if I had done, it would have saved some confusion. In short, I completely agree with your first comment here (from a hasty reading I thought you were just amplifying my own post). I can see why you're misunderstanding me on the wider issue though. I wrote this post for a different discussion to the one that you're raising here. I wasn't actually saying that I thought that focus groups were a 'savvy' way of researching anything myself. That post was about perceptions within the party. On the one hand, there were the 'roundheads', and then there were the more metropolitan set in the party from the early 1990s onwards who thought of themselves as being more sophisticated than the roundheads. If you re-read the post, I hope you'll see that it was intended as a illustrative narrative rather than an endorsement of either set (which it most certainly wasn't).

And, I suppose, if I had to make a call, I'd probably prefer the results of a fairly poorly conducted focus group as evidence to the observations from a doorstep canvasser, but I don't think that there is as much in it as some people do.

I think (and I've argued this elsewhere) that attempting to find out what the public actually want in order to shape policy as a result is a fool’s errand anyway. The 'roundheads' piece here was intended to explain some of the internal tribal perceptions from within the party in order to indicate how new Labour came into being. I prefer strong individual representatives, fairly weak parties and political decentralisation - the formula that 'politicians should represent their constituents, their parties and their consciences' is the one that works for me.

I'd also add that I should have said that this is a partial explanation. In this post, I've said 'roundheads + focus groupies = new Labour' - and this is obviously sloppy shorthand on my part (but, again, I was making a different case to the one you've picked me up on).

Without checking around what I've written before, my general line is the one that you suggest that I should take. I don't think that the general public focus on court politics at the expense of policy (and I've said so plenty of times here) but I DO think that the commentariat - whether it is the press or assorted satirists and bloggers - do focus on Westminster at the expense of providing a decent and reliable guide to the issues.

Finally, Cian, I think that you make an interesting point about ideology - and this is where we do disagree. My argument is that new Labour are largely the product of the environment in which it was formed. You seem to be suggesting that a neo-liberal ideological takeover happened at some point. A kind of 'entryism'. It's a view that I held for some time and one that I've moved away from in recent years. I don't think that you are completely wrong about this either, but I've come around to the view that there is a lot more cock-up than conspiracy in the way that Labour's revealed ideology has been shaped.

I would, however, be open to an argument that new Labour has been the objective ally for a partial capture of Whitehall by management consultants. In fact, drafing such an argument is on my to-do list.

To crudely polarise our positions, you (Cian and Daniel) seem to be arguing 'it's the people in power who are bad' and I'm arguing 'it's all the fault of the system.' This polarisation is, of course, unfair to both of us, but it helps to illustrate the difference I think?

I also suspect that both of you (Cian and Daniel) may be demonstrably proved wrong shortly on this when/if Gordon Brown takes over. He will soon find out (if he doesn't know already) that there are back-seat drivers that are too stubborn to shift. But if there is a substantial and tangible change in the style of government and policy-making I'll partially concede your point. If there is such a change, and it proves to be electorally successful, I'll concede even more of it.


I also work in business. I'd agree that you don't allow lightly held snarky perceptions of your service to change the shape of it. But the pluralistic nature of business is surely very different to the one in which everyone has one important vote to cast every five years in our highly flawed system. I'm not sure that the comparison has much value. If this country could move towards being a deliberative democracy, however, principled politicians would be at a much higher premium. Which I think is good, and you – I suspect – think is not.

AlabasterCodify said...

As Henry Ford said, "If I'd asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have said 'a slightly faster horse'".