OPINION: How qualitative research is vital to political campaigns - Despite debate over the extent of its influence on political policy, research plays an essential role for all parties, Laura Marks says

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 wants.

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

wants.



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

day.



A number of commentators have seen changes in the more overt and

frequent use of research by Labour and the Conservatives in

particular.



They point to the US Presidential election, where it appeared that

policies were being honed each week in response to the latest research

findings.



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

organisations.



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

stance.



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

political process.



This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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