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Focus groups debunked

Posted by Richard Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Norman Lamont, in an op-ed today in The Daily Telegraph has penned a storming piece about focus groups which encapsulate much of what is wrong with modern politics.

Entitled, "Focus groups? I thought we elected politicians to make big decisions", he observes that "politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have created an entire industry devoted to telling them what to say," adding that, "Bill Clinton has called members of focus groups the most powerful people in America."

Lamont then goes on to note that Lord Ashcroft, a major funder of the Conservative Party, has called for "better use" to be made of focus groups, then expressing his concern – which he then goes on to elaborate at some little length – that these groups are distorting the whole political process.

The comments are well worth reading, not least when he draws on industry’s experience of these groups, suggesting that every advertisement, every new brand has the blessing of a focus group – yet most new products still fail. Even BA's disastrous ethnic tail designs were focus group-tested.

This brings to mind my own experience with a multi-national group that produced air-fresheners, which relied extensively on focus groups. They were quite happy if one in ten of their product launches succeeded, this being enough to keep the cash-flow healthy. But political parties cannot afford a one-in-ten success rate, otherwise they could end up seeing power only once in every 40 or 50 years.

However, back to Lamont, he thinks that focus groups have outlived their usefulness – and we agree. It was during that last election that the Conservatives not only made maximum use of these groups, but concentrated entirely on "swing voters" in marginal seats to tell them how to frame their messages.

This meant that the Party was going to the people who were least committed to any political ideology, in areas which had no settled political loyalty, to tell them how to address the nation. Predictable, their messages lacked coherence and failed utterly to inspire the nation to flock behind the Party and vote it into power.

In this context, it is entirely the "focus group" mentality which tells the parties that "schools 'n' hospitals" agenda is the dominant - nay, exclusive - concern of the voter, and which has led the major parties to concentrate on this above all else. It also meant that crucial subjects like defence, like the environment and, dare I say it, "Europe" – or even road charging - were not rehearsed during the general election campaign.

An important flaw in the focus group mentality, therefore, it that it robs politicians of the opportunity to set their own agendas and to pick issues which they believe are important. It forces them into a conformist mould which dampens down debate and originality.

Perhaps even more damaging is that reliance on focus group opinions means that the politicians are ignoring their own core voters. This was very much the experience of the general election, where voters (and campaigners) in safe seats were ignored by the centre, as the "big beasts" went haring off after the marginal seats. Yet they left behind them a residue of ill-feeling, a realisation that the centre was taking too many things - and people - for granted.

And it is here that "Europe" will come to the fore. Down on the constituencies, the European Union is and will remain an important issue, yet the focus groups and, to the same extent, the opinion polls tell the politicians its is not an issue.

But, while you can argue about its extent, the UKIP effect undoubtedly cost the Conservatives some seats in the general election. And, if UKIP is still around at the next election – which may well coincide with the Euro-elections – the effect could even cost the Conservatives the whole election.

Thus, Lamont is right about focus groups having outlived their usefulness. But he hints also at alternatives, citing – of all people - Enoch Powell, who referred to "the mysterious chemistry of public opinion". Margaret Thatcher, says Lamont, certainly knew when to disregard market research. In the 1980s, opinion polls regularly showed that voters preferred public spending to tax cuts. Despite that, she insisted on cutting income tax, and the voters rewarded her. In the same way, Norman Tebbit, a different sort of political genius, used to spend hours studying his constituents' letters.

I can perhaps offer another option. For the first time in a long time, the Party could start listening to its activists on the ground.