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Against the grain

SOLOMON HUGHES reveals a single man in Crewe led to a national story on Labour’s association with quinoa

Is Labour quinoa? This pointless question covered a Guardian column, as well as taking up a few bytes of space on other news websites. They claimed that “research” proved “swing voters” now associated Labour with quinoa, which the Guardian helpfully explained is a “fancy grain,” presumably because they don’t believe their readers ever look at the Guardian’s many quinoa-friendly food supplements.

“Political analysts,” the Guardian explained, discovered the quinoa-Labour link, proving Labour was in danger of becoming a middle-class party and losing its “traditional base.”

So how bad is Labour’s quinoa-danger? The threat was actually uncovered by a focus group of seven swing voters in Crewe “moderated” by Britain Thinks, an “insight and strategy consultancy” led by Deborah Mattinson.

She is closely linked to the rise of New Labour: Mattinson helped lead the Shadow Communications Agency. This volunteer group of Labour-supporting pollsters and advertising people helped put together Neil Kinnock’s 1987 election campaign.

Kinnock lost, but the influence of the “modernisers” of the Shadow Communications Agency grew, becoming central to the New Labour project. Mattinson later became Gordon Brown’s chief pollster.

So how accurate is Mattinson’s focus group technique? I tested it by convening my own focus group of political analysts, and the word we most associated with the approach was “bollocks.”

All public opinion surveys can be distorted by what questions are asked, and how they are asked. But focus groups are especially prone to distortion, because they rely on very small groups with an active participation by “moderators,” so can easily end up reflecting the questioner’s own views. This well-established critique of focus groups grew alongside New Labour’s enthusiasm for the technique, but for some reason the Guardian reporters who amplified the quinoa story forgot about that.

Questions about “which food is Labour” or “what do you think Tories have for dinner” are supposed to be revealing, to cut into voters’ subconscious. But do they?

The same Britain Thinks report that revealed the quinoa-Labour-link also showed their focus groups thought Tories have “pheasant and quail for dinner.”

This point didn’t make it into the newspapers, either because it seemed like a banal cliché, or because there is less room for stories that are uncomfortable for Tories in the papers.

Looking closely at Mattinson’s report it seems only a single swing voter in Crewe said Labour had “gone from being pie and mash to being quinoa.” Britain Thinks and then the Guardian decided this one voter was somehow the authentic voice, even though pie and mash is no more an authentic or traditional dish in Crewe than quinoa. The focus group seems to be telling them what they want to hear rather than any kind of “painful truth.”

Britain Thinks also carried out some wider opinion polling as part of the report, and this is perhaps worth looking at: their polls show the Tories are still solidly seen as the party for “high earners” and “middle class people.” Labour is seen as representing “working class people,” but much less solidly. There is a strong realisation within Labour that they need to rebuild their working class voter base, one that was worn away by the “New Labour” years.

However, the party’s current leadership think this base needs to be rebuilt by solid policy, by finding an economic offer that will appeal to older and blue collar voters outside the big cities, and by strengthening the link between protest and campaigning and working class voters. It won’t be rebuilt by empty cultural gestures based on potatoes — whether mashed, chipped or roasted — or bizarre claims that “fancy coffee” is only consumed by the economic elite.

So far Corbyn’s Labour have been pretty good at rebuilding Labour’s vote by articulating a “populist” left message and mobilising an activist base, but there is still a lot of work to be done. The alternative, to follow the New Labour focus group route, could have led to the kind of shrinking votes that European social democrats are seeing.

Tom Blackburn, one of the editors of the very useful online magazine “New Socialist,” pointed out Britain Thinks had offered Labour a prescription for how to recover from Ed Miliband’s 2015 election defeat. The report, called Emerging from the Darkness, said their focus groups thought Labour should “revitalise its brand” with some “quick wins.”

One of these was to commission an independent review of the party’s economic performance in government, “ideally headed by a Tory.” This was a part of showing Labour was “for middle class voters, not just down and outs.” The experts who thought putting a Tory in charge of Labour’s economic policy don’t really have a lot to offer.



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