Book review: Talking to a brick wall by Deborah Mattinson

Deborah Mattinson’s account of what she saw during her time as a leading pollster to the Labour Party certainly doesn’t stint in portraying her own role in what the book calls “Europe’s greatest election winning machine of the modern era”. The fact that Labour won three general elections in a row and yet the fact that, even looking no further than the same country and the same part of the century, the preceding Conservative government did one better and won four general elections in a row, does provide a warning against taking everything in the book – whether from the publisher or the author – too uncritically.

Talking to a Brick Wall - Deborah Mattinson - book coverBut if you read on, armed with these caveats and the usual caution about the balance between accuracy and self-serving in such books, it’s an entertaining read that paints a vivid picture of the utterly dysfunctional way Labour operated for years, as if emulating a group of sulky teenagers is the blueprint to follow. She had a close up view of much that happened in 1983-2010, and the book tells it from the perspective of the voters she frequently focus grouped rather than from the more traditional perspective of Westminster bubble gossip.

The book gives a good account of how and why focus groups became such a popular tool for Labour, enabling people – when done well – to understand the deeper and longer-term trends which lie behind headline figures.

Indeed, the listing of terms which people popularly associated with Labour politicians in the 1980s (“holidays in Blackpool”, “takes the bus”, “lives in a council house”, “smokes a pipe” and so on) vividly demonstrates how focus groups can not only give that insight but give it in a form that more vividly expresses the message to many than a table of numbers or a collection of pie-charts showing quantitative research.

At times passionately, Mattinson regularly defends the importance of focus groups in helping understand what the public is thinking and the reasons for it. But even she warns against relying on them too heavily rather than talking to the public directly: “Focus group members should never be used to provide workaholic politicians with imaginary friends”.

This warning to keep public opinion research in its place is however undermined in other places, such as when she talks of Labour’s tax rise in 2002 which financed a huge increase in health spending – and was one of the biggest public spending decisions (if not the biggest) in that Parliament. What finally persuaded Gordon Brown to make the move? Not health or economic arguments but instead: “I ran a large scale poll to get confirmation of the focus group feedback. It gave the Treasury team the proof they needed to take the plunge.”

Talking to a brick wall provides an insight into the debates and disputes within the Labour Party about how to appeal to women voters, whether to do more to promote women politicians and so on. Mattinson neatly juxtaposes The Times‘s verdict on the famous 1997 photograph of Tony Blair surrounded by newly elected female Labour MPs (“Who will save the utterly dowdy class of ’97 from years of brightly coloured polyester?”) with that of two female focus group participants (“It was one of the the things that made me feel optimistic. That this was a real fresh beginning” and “I remember that photo … I was really impressed”).

Her argument about the danger to Labour of neglecting the female vote does not always convince, as when she talks up the 7 point decline in Labour’s support amongst women in 2005-2010 but does not mention that across men the picture was only fractionally different (a 6 point decline which, bearing in mind the opinion poll data used here, is not statistically different).

Nonetheless, it is a welcome difference to read a book about British politics where the female vote (the majority, after all) is central to the account rather than relegated to a special chapter or section.

In another respect the book is little different from several other recent titles for, like Peter Watt and Andrew Rawnsley, she paints a picture of a Labour Party deeply divided for years into Blair and Brown camps with the rivalry varying between the productive, the petulant and the pointless. The two camps regularly commissioned their own opinion polling – and perhaps it’s no surprise that Labour ended up in power with such authoritarian tendencies because, when figures right at the top couldn’t trust each other is it any wonder they didn’t much trust the public either?

Despite frequent praise, the book is often far from flattering about Gordon Brown, as with the Iraq war – “Team Brown was in a strange place, neither strongly supporting nor opposing military action”, and with the frequent telling references to “Team GB”. These are not so much a compliment to the sporting achievements of other Team GBs as an indictment of the brutish factionalism that passed for grown-up behaviour in Labour.

Even back in 2004 Mattinson was doing research on how voters viewed Gordon Brown and on how they views “the competition” – by which she means other Labour cabinet members. With an eye to the current Labour leadership contest, it is telling how deeply Mattinson links Ed Balls and Ed Miliband to the insular and divisive Team GB, saying they were absolutely central to the team planning Gordon Brown’s succession and met regularly. Way back in 1996 Ed Balls and Team GB were running their own private polling operation: “Ed [Balls] did not like the advice that Philip Gould was giving and, bluntly, didn’t trust it. He asked me to carry out a clandestine operation challenging Philip’s findings”. To add to the farce, not only was Brown not trusting Gould and commissioning polling privately, so too was Team Blair – with the result that both the two most senior figures were commissioning their own polling to query that of their own party.

The book ends posing questions for the state of politics – arguing that the public has stopped listening to politicians because politicians stopped listening to the public – but it also poses a question for Labour: can it leave this factional past behind?

You can buy Talking to a brick wall from Amazon here.

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