Agency: Fallon London
By LAURA MARKS, chair of the Association o, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 11 April 1997 12:00AM
With the general election looming, the political parties are
working up a fever to find out what the voters think of them and their
policies and - more importantly - to discover what the public really
This has put a premium on qualitative research which, whether through
group discussions or in-depth interview, is acknowledged as the best way
of eliciting people’s deeper thoughts on anything from products and
companies to the social and political issues and personalities of the
A number of commentators have seen changes in the more overt and
frequent use of research by Labour and the Conservatives in
They point to the US Presidential election, where it appeared that
policies were being honed each week in response to the latest research
Politicians, they declare, are becoming salesmen and hucksters, ready to
believe in anything if they think it’s what the public wants.
Such concerns are understandable, but they result from a
misunderstanding of the various functions of research and, to a certain
extent, the way in which politicians use research to explore their
policies and meet the needs of voters.
Qualitative research is generally used in three main ways by the
political parties. The first is an adversarial one, to discover the
weakness of the other side in the view of the public.
All this is perfectly legitimate. Politics is the most important game in
town and, as such, has always been a hard-hitting trade.
The second function of qualitative research is to help the parties
assess whether they are communicating the message they intend to get
across. As with advertising, it’s easy for the public to get the wrong
idea. Politicians may believe they are sending one message when what is
being received is very different.
This is a matter concerning the nature of a party’s communication with
the country - the form of the message rather than its content. Again,
it’s perfectly legitimate. Even the most hardened cynic would not
suggest that we would benefit from misconstruing what the politicians
are trying to say.
The third use of research - its direct influence on approach and policy
- is controversial, and is similar to the methods adopted by commercial
Purists object that this is a travesty of politics. They maintain that
parties should stand for a set of values and policies that they believe
in, and not be blown about by the current wave of public opinion.
Democracy should not be about consumer testing of a poltitcal party as
if it was a can of beans.
But this is a gross oversimplification, not just of politics but of life
in general. Circumstances change, as do people’s moods and feelings,
often with remarkable speed in today’s fast-moving world.
Politicians cannot operate in isolation from the electorate. Their
position is analogous with that of good newspaper or magazine editors,
who have their own individual instincts, views and approaches, but
recognise that they must not lose touch with their readers.
This doesn’t mean that editors abandon their judgement or editorial
The best editors combine a blend of personal judgement with a continual
sensitivity to their readers’ lives.
Politicians, like editors, should lead, reflect and represent their
constituencies in the widest possible sense of the word. To do this
effectively, they need to be in continual touch with voters - which is
why qualitative research, in all its functions, is essential to the
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk