So, there’s this from Mike Smithson and IPSOS-Mori:
There’s this, from the Indy and ComRes.
There’s also this from Patrick “Unseasonably Mild” Wintour:
tp://http://t.co/70Ce8csl seriously what is the point of the Conservative Party asking questions as loaded as these – to check messaging ?
— Patrick Wintour (@patrickwintour) December 20, 2012
What’s going on? Well, I think this tells us something about how the coalition forms strategy. You’ll have noticed that they keep repeating certain visual images – alarm clock, curtains closed – as if they thought they were enormously compelling in and of themselves. I’ve not heard of anyone who heard this and said “Wow!”, but y’know, Pauline Kael effect and all that.
When Clegg started talking about “alarm clock Britain” I assumed someone had just translated Nicolas Sarkozy’s line about “la France qui se leve tot” freely. But then, just lately, I saw a quote briefed out by “Tory sources” saying that the image their focus groups associated with Labour was a run-down house with the curtains shut and full of black people…I made the last bit up. Not the rest, though. And I had a eureka moment.
What’s going on here is that they run focus groups to decide on presentation strategy, and then use that as policy. But the thing here is that it’s much, much easier to stick your thumb on the scales with qualitative data than with quantitative data. You can do it – click through to the private poll the Tories leaked to Wintour – but it’s harder and it’s much more obvious.
The appeal to private polls is rightly mocked – it’s the political equivalent of “the lurkers support me in e-mail!” – because you usually don’t get to see the question, the methodology, the sample size, or the crossbreaks, and therefore you can’t tell if the results are trustworthy. That is, of course, why politicians commission them and brief them to journalists, especially ones like Wintour. On this occasion, oddly, they did release more information.
But I have never, ever heard of a focus group that let even a word slip about how they actually picked the participants and what happened. Because they are environments in which the facilitator controls all the inputs, they are by definition very easy for the facilitator to influence. There are reasons why people who run them get described as “gurus” – it’s the sense of the word Peter Drucker used when he said that “guru” is spelt C-H-A-R-L-A-T-A-N.
If your aim is to convince the rest of your party that you are right, this is useful. It’s also a good way to test different marketing options against each other, because you can isolate their effect up to a point. If you use them as survey research, though, I suspect you will mostly come away convinced of whatever you believed going in. You will, in a nutshell, believe your own propaganda.
Now, Tony Blair was an expert in using policy-based evidence to sell his policies within the Labour Party. And we know that the coalition’s culture is a kind of Blairite Cosplay fetish. But you’ll note that although he certainly did end up believing his own propaganda, Blair usually decided on the policy and then created the policy-based evidence (rather, got Philip “not the Rugby League coach” Gould to create it) in order to legitimise it.
Narrative and imagery are tools of persuasion. They are not methods of inquiry.