Core! Focus on this sample of key policy group garbage

Tony Blair believes that if you say you are doing a thing enough, people will think you've done it

"WHAT ARE these focus groups, then?" said the man at the bar with the bow tie. "When I was young we didn't have focus groups. Now they're all over the place and nobody will tell me what they are."

"We've got all sorts of groups these days," said a young man with a pint that hadn't diminished in an hour. "We've got focus groups, and core groups and pressure groups, and lobby groups, and rock groups, and study groups and..."

"...And what do they all do?" said the woman with the ginger wig.

"Nothing," said the young man with the pint. "If a group ever achieved its object, it would fade away. A successful group is a group that has ceased to exist. Therefore all existing groups are, by definition, unsuccessful."

"That's too clever for me," said the man with the bow tie, and I think he spoke for the rest of us. "What I want to know is, what are these focus groups, then?"

"I think they tell Tony Blair what to do," said a man with a dog. "I think Tony Blair likes to test his policy on small groups of voters to see if they go down well, then he implements them."

"What's that to do with focus?" asked the man with the bow tie.

"The way it works is this," said the man with the dog, ignoring the question. "Tony Blair wants to know what people want changed in Britain. He finds out from a cross-section of focus groups that what they most want reformed is the welfare system. But he also finds out from his backroom boys that it would cost too much to reform."

"So what does he do?"

"He announces non-stop that he is going to reform the welfare set-up, to please the voter, and he does nothing about it, to please the backroom boys. Tony Blair believes that if you say you are doing a thing often enough, people will believe you have done it. Now a sizeable minority thinks Blair has reformed the welfare system, even though he hasn't lifted a finger."

There was a pause.

"We have had them all along," I said.

"Had what?" said the man with the bow tie.

"Focus groups," I said. "You said they didn't have them when you were young. But they did. They were just called different things then. Consumer groups. Sample groups. The kind of group that was got together when a toothpaste manufacturer had to decide whether people would prefer green toothpaste or blue toothpaste. They'd test both kinds on focus groups. Then they'd decide whether to make their toothpaste green or blue."

"And which did they decide?"

"Whichever colour was cheaper to make," said the man with the non-shrinking pint.

"Do you think Tony Blair chooses his mannerisms according to focus group demand?" said Bow Tie. "I mean, does he test his speaking tricks in front of a sample?"

"Core sample," I said.

"Core sample," said Bow Tie, grudgingly.

"Core focus sample," said the lady with the ginger wig.

"Oh, stuff it," said Bow Tie. "This is a serious point. Does he let his eyes go moist for one lot, and not for another? Does he do a lot of pauses for one lot, and not another? Then add up the scores? And change his act accordingly?"

"Why not?" said the man with the dog. "Why shouldn't he? After all, a comedian changes his jokes if they don't go down well, doesn't he? If three audiences in a row sit stony-faced through the same gag, he will drop it. But what is an audience but a focus group by another name? The comedian who drops a gag from his act is reacting to consumer research."

"Yes, but a politician can't change his act that much. You can drop your voice a few semitones like Thatcher, or change your hair-do like Tony Blair, but you can't change a lot. Tony Blair can't really change his voice now. It will always be a minor public school voice."

"Fettes is not a minor public school," said a Scottish voice. "Whether you like private education or not, it is a major Scottish school."

"Any Scottish school is, by definition, minor," said Bow Tie.

There was a small scuffle between Bow Tie and the Scot at this point, and when it had been snuffed out the man with the dog said: "Yes, but you might easily say that we here in the pub are also a focus group. A spontaneous focus group, but nonetheless a focus group."

"And what have we been focusing on?" asked the ginger-wigged lady.

"On focus groups."

"And what have we decided?"

"That focus groups are a load of bollocks."

There was general agreement on this point, and the conversation then passed on to last night's TV.

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