This evening I found myself sitting around a table in the meeting room of a hotel in my hometown with seven other women, taking part in a focus group for the Labour party. My aunt is on a mailing list for focus groups and she received an email looking for female Labour voters which would pay £40 for an hour’s worth of your time. She sent it on to me; I needed the money and thought it might be interesting; and so off I went. Not only were we handed £40 the minute we walked in, we also had to hang around the bar area for a while beforehand and were offered “a free drink – which can be alcoholic”. I settled for a J20 but most of the women had wine. I got the impression this was rather encouraged – after all, we were there in our capacities as ordinary people to give our honest opinion, and in vino veritas.
The discussion kicked off with us giving a short introduction on our family situation, where we got most of our news from, and who we voted for in the last election. I was the youngest person there by 25 years, and the only one who had any real political interest. Everyone took great pleasure in introducing themselves and saying a lot about their families, and very little about their news sources. It took me about 2 minutes to realise I was the least appropriate person for this kind of group ever. Focus groups are not about listening to the opinions of politics obsessives like me, they’re about gauging the mood of people who don’t generally pay much attention to politics. I was at a loss how to respond to most of the questions, because if you ask my opinion, I’ll give you an analysis, but they were looking for reactions. The role of the interviewer is very interesting . They run the group like a discussion, throwing out questions and seeing who responds, encouraging currents in a conversation, and steering the topic back towards certain issues. I would actually love to do that job. It’s amazing how much people will tell you if you act as though their opinion is worth listening to (and maybe give them some wine).
The first topic of conversation was our views on Ed Miliband. There were eight of us in the room, and two women stuck out – one was very domineering and spoke over people a lot, and the other was a Malaysian woman who came to the UK to study and met her husband, and who kept describing herself as “very family orientated”. It was someone else who first described Ed as “creepy” and there were murmurs of assent around the room as most people agreed. It surprised me that they called Ed “creepy” – I can understand thinking he was geeky or awkward, maybe, but “creepy” seemed unnecessarily harsh. I disagreed and said I thought Ed comes across as who he is – an affable, intellectual policy wonk (I didn’t use the word wonk) and that I thought he’d make a decent leader. Then the Malaysian woman kept going on about how she couldn’t trust someone who had “stolen” the election from his brother. This view was quite widely shared; at least, everyone was more interested in the sibling rivalry between Ed and David than in any of Ed’s policies. At one point they were so busy speculating about why it often is that siblings compete in the same field that the interviewer had to shut everyone up. I was genuinely baffled that these women thought they were being paid £40 for their pseudo-analysis of the Miliband family. It was probably the most heated part of the discussion, and the Malaysian woman said that “as someone who is very family-orientated, I just don’t understand how those two brothers and their wives can sit around a table together… after Ed betrayed David like that”. It was all completely bizarre. We were asked whether it made a difference to us that he got married – the consensus was “No it doesn’t”, and then Domineering Woman quipped that she “felt sorry for his wife”, to general laughter. And we were all chosen because we were Labour voters! You could do a lot worse than Ed, that’s all I’m saying.
Next up was our views on why Labour lost the last election. By this point I decided just to give pat answers. The general view was that Labour were unlucky enough to be in power when the financial crisis happened, but that it was partly their fault because (apparently) the crisis was caused by too much borrowing and public spending. Tony Blair was a good leader because he was a showman, but Gordon Brown seemed awkward. The low point of the evening was when a woman (one who was particularly obsessed with the Ed-and-David psychodrama) said she started taking in an interest in Gordon Brown when she read about his child being ill, and subsequently dying. That warmed Brown to her. Someone else pointed out that David Cameron’s child had died too. No one had any qualms about this. I thought it was grotesque.
There was a brief detour onto Boris Johnson, who divided opinions. About half the group liked him, although they couldn’t really say why. I actually gave my real opinion at this point – “he’s ruthlessly ambitious and would do anything for power, I don’t think he even has any principles beyond a vague view that rich people are better than the rest of us” and no one challenged me. Domineering Woman said that “at least Boris is dynamic enough to get people talking”, to which my (inner) reply was that if it takes Boris Johnson to get you interested in politics, that probably says more about your ignorance than anything else. I spend a lot of time around young people who are informed and very used to defending their opinions. It was a shock to be around middle-aged people simultaneously so uninformed and so sure of themselves. At several points people said “It’s just common sense” or “Everyone agrees that…” or “Come on, we all know that”. There’s something stultifying about people who haven’t changed their opinions in the past two decades. Not everyone was this bad – two or three kept quiet for a lot of it. But overall I was amazed to think that in this day and age there are still people confident of walking into a room of 9 strangers and expecting that everyone shares their point of view.
Next up – the economy. “There do have to be cuts because we’ve run out of money” was the general consensus. No one talked about inequality, but there were comments about “the bankers”. Most were broadly in favour of the changes to the benefits system – “people have been milking the system for too long”. In fact, the interviewer steered the conversation around to ask whether Labour would have more chance of winning the 2014 election if they would take an equally harsh line on benefits cheats, and most people said they would. And this is people who have almost always voted Labour. Domineering Woman claimed to “know better than anyone” how the economy worked, because she was a mortgage advisor. This was one of the many times I had to refrain from laughing out loud. That the country is in debt, that a structural deficit is essentially a national overdraft, and that the only solution was spending cuts, was accepted by everybody. Most of the women had professional jobs, or their husbands owned small businesses, and almost all of their children had or would consider university. When the subject of tuition fees came up, there was talk of how people they knew had put their children off going to university, because of the cost. And while everyone thought the rise in fees was disgraceful, their understanding of why it had happened, or just how shocking the cost is in comparison to every other developed country in the world, was very superficial. They complained about it in the way people complain about the weather.
The conversation turned back to Labour, and who else in the party aside from Ed we had any strong opinions on. One woman complained that the party has no rising stars, and this then segued into a talk on why young people weren’t interested in politics. My favourite question of the evening came from the interviewer – “After all, do normal young people go into politics? Aren’t all these student activists a bit weird?” No one agreed, exactly, but there was definitely a consensus that politicians can’t be trusted. And that student activists are weird. We are, of course. Anyone who is really into politics isn’t normal. I forget most of the time that a “normal” interest in politics is thinking about it for about 30 seconds twice a week. When the interviewer asked if we thought the Labour party had any rising stars, I mentioned Chukka Ummana, and nobody knew who he was. In fact, not a single person could name a member of the Shadow Cabinet, which I thought was mindboggling. These were middle-class women, and they had only the vaguest idea of who Ed Balls is.
Lastly, we were asked if we would vote in the European elections. The interviewer (I can’t get across how much he conducted the session as though he were making up questions in response to peoples’ answers) asked if any of us would vote for UKIP. One woman said “Ugh, no, they’re horrible” and the Malaysian woman asked if they were the Party who didn’t like foreigners. The interviewer summed them up as the party who want Britain out of the EU, partly because they think the EU brings in too much immigration, at which point the Malaysian woman said she might vote for them! Someone else chimed in with a comment about there being too many immigrants, and no one disagreed. And then it was time to go home.
All in all, it was an interesting evening, and certainly the easiest forty pounds I’ve ever made. I think there’s almost nothing as interesting as just getting people to tell you what they think, even if their opinions will probably appal you. I was reminded of the extent to which people use political opinions to voice certain things about themselves – whether that’s an opportunity to go on about how “family focused” they are, to talk at length about the several hospitals they’ve worked in as an NHS nurse, or perhaps to point out how their immigrant story was a respectable journey into middle-class Englishhood, unlike the hordes who arrive today. Liberal leftie types like myself do this as well, of course. It still infuriates me when people blame their political ignorance on politicians, and I feel for the policy wonks who will have to make sense of an hour’s worth of very misinformed, tipsy ramblings from seven “ordinary voters”, and one girl rolling her eyes in the corner. If I had several hundred pounds to spend on gathering the views of, to quote The Thick of It, “muggles”, I would hang around in pubs, buy people drinks, and ask them what they think. Or I’d just pick up a copy of the Daily Mail, because evidently most people just agree with what they read in the papers. But as a rule of thumb, it’s less about the politics of pre-distribution and more about how Ed Miliband looks a bit funny. Oh, and student politicians are weird.