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Stephan Shakespeare

Stephan Shakespeare: There's no such thing as Worcester Woman or Mondeo Man

Who do the Conservatives need to target to win the next election? What is the latest version of Mondeo Man? Actually, David Cameron is doing less well with the opposite sex, so maybe it’s more like Worcester Women, or Soccer Moms? These ‘micro groups’ are beloved of a certain type of pundit, but are they meaningful? To me they are just empty tokens which out-of-touch communications professionals have reverse-engineered out of the marginalia of questionable data. ‘Worcester Woman’ never existed, not even in a genuine focus group – she was conjured up out of the demand for alliteration and a little banter in an adjacent county. One should avoid over-confidence in such precise targeting; people just don't fit into these moulds. They can have their uses in focusing the attention of politicians, but they also mislead.

Nick Boles recently quoted a YouGov survey which found that “70 per cent of adults said that they might be prepared to vote Labour and 64 per cent said that they might be prepared to vote Liberal Democrat – while only 58 per cent said that they might vote Conservative. Forty-two per cent of voters said that they would “never” vote Conservative”. As only 36% actually voted Conservative 2010, that means there are around 22% who would consider voting Conservative but didn’t in 2010. Boles argued that these were people who consider themselves moderate – “slightly to the Left of centre or slightly to the Right of centre” – and that they are the ones who should be targeted in order to win a majority at the next election. He therefore warned against a “move to the right”.

I agree with all that, but with one proviso. It is tempting but wrong to imagine the 36% of Tory voters, the 22% of ‘didn’t-vote-Tory-but-might’, and the 42% of ‘would-never-vote-Tories’ as being ranged neatly across a spectrum from right to left, like a political litmus test. The 22% are not at some mythical centre, just to the left of the Conservative Party; they are spread out right across the spectrum. They have all kinds of reasons for voting or not voting; yes, they all consider themselves ‘moderate’, and they want to vote for other people who are considered ‘moderate’, but the term moderate is an emotional and not a rational descriptor. Tim Montgomerie sounds - and is - just as moderate a Nick, and both in different ways are moderate Conservatives (as the fringe meeting featuring them in debate clearly demonstrated; there was almost no disagreement between them). They both know the chief problem is to convince many different kinds of people that Conservatives are on their side, and not the side of the rich and comfortable.

Both Nick and Tim would reject the idea that you can find and define little splinters of humanity, locate them on some left-right spectrum and then ‘target’ these poor specimens with some brilliant under-the-radar laser-targeted advertising campaign. It’s a totally outmoded idea. It never worked; wherever it was attempted it only testified to the arrogance and worn-out imaginations of the spin doctors. The advice is simple: target everybody, with ideas that you really believe will make society work better. I don’t suggest a purely naïve approach; you should use effective communication techniques such as web campaigns which address particular issues. But don't think there's a map of votes. That will lead you to underestimate the challenge. The votes needed for a majority are to be found all over the place in not-micro groups such as not-rich-man and not-rich-woman. There's no formula for converting them.

The attempt to work some campaigning magic with sleight-of-hand positioning is bound to be counter-productive and alienate you further from the people you are trying to win over. You can't convince ordinary strugglers that you're on their side unless you are actually on their side, doing things for them. Not symbolically but actually. Worrying less about how you are perceived by supposed influentials and more about visibly trying to make things better for the uninfluentials.

With schools and welfare we've shown commitment and vision, undertaking a programme of pragmatic improvement, and got the credit for it; it's certainly not too late in this parliament to do the same for policing and health care. Conventional wisdom says you can only be bold in the first year after an election, and the rest of your energy and creativity should be devoted to preparation for the next one. How better to show you are on the side of ordinary people and gain respect right across the electorate than to ignore that self-defeating nonsense?


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