The views of the voter are curiously absent from most account of British elections and politics more generally. Instead, accounts are usually based on what figures at the centre get up to, even though almost all of the events recounted are barely noticed by most real voters. That is why I am such a fan of Deborah Mattinson’s Talking to a Brick Wall as it tells the story of New Labour’s rise and fall not through the gossipy details of Westminster but through the voices of actual voters, reported through numerous focus groups.
Done well, and leaving aside the whimsy of ‘if a politician had to be a type of paperclip what type of paperclip would Boris Johnson be?’, focus groups are a vital tool to understanding what really makes voters come to the decisions they do and provide a level of explanation opinion polls only rarely manage to match.
Lord Ashcroft has done us all a similar service for understanding the 2015 general election with the focus groups he ran and published, and which have now been conveniently collected in the one book, Pay me forty quid and I’ll tell you: The 2015 election through the eyes of the voters (who largely ignored it). A lengthy title for a slim 119 page volume, but one which is packed full of insight.
There are clues aplenty in the book as to why the Tories ending up winning, as with the pithy comment from one focus group member that, “David Cameron’s pretty good but Ed Miliband is a muppet” or from another that “Ed Miliband feels like the interim Labour leader, until the next one”.
Of course, the importance of those views is easier to spot with hindsight and had the Tories lost there is a different set of quotes that would leap out as you read the book, this time about how the Tories seemed to be heartless and for the rich, how the economic recovery was not being felt and how meekly the ‘Miliband in the pocket of the SNP’ message went down at first.
But even so there is much in here that helps explain the election result – and how voters really make up their minds. In the focus group held the day before the 2015 Budget, none of the participants knew the Budget was due the next day, yet they were able to make pretty coherent judgements about different parties and their leaders. That mix of ignorance and sense is at the heart of how politics really works – not the details that usually fill up political coverage.
If you like this, you might also be interested in Talking to a Brick Wall: How New Labour stopped listening to the voter and why we need a new politics by Deborah Mattinson.
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Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.