Tories use consumer habits to target voters

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The contents of voters' shopping baskets are being studied by both main political parties to help them prepare "bespoke" campaigns in the coming election.

The contents of voters' shopping baskets are being studied by both main political parties to help them prepare "bespoke" campaigns in the coming election.

Labour and Conservative strategists have both bought software that uses hundreds of pieces of commercial and official data to sort Britain's 23 million households into more than 30 specific niche areas.

Whereas Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman became the buzzwords of previous campaigns, this time terms such as New Urban Colonists and Golden Empty Nesters could join the lexicon.

The terms are used by the Mosaic database, supplied by credit history firm Experian. The programme was developed in the US where the Republicans' more skilful use of consumer information to target voters is credited with helping George Bush win.

Steve Morgan, a British polling expert who helped to run John Kerry's campaign, says the Bush camp was able to develop an amazingly detailed picture of the US electorate through an aggressive purchase of commercially available data.

The data was studied for detailed consumer patterns, including what people purchased, ate, drank, listened to and watched, as well as "anger points" which could give clues on which groups should be targeted about which specific political issues. Drinkers of Coors beer, for example, were more likely to vote Republican, as were bourbon drinkers. Those with a taste for brandy, on the other hand, were found to be Democrats.

In Britain, the use of consumer data as a political marketing tool is still in its infancy, but Michael Howard's success in launching his asylum and immigration policy has made many sit up and take notice of a sharper Tory campaigning style.

The arrival in Conservative headquarters of Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor, two Australian poll gurus well-versed in the art of precision targeting, has reinforced suspicions that the party is preparing a Republican-style campaign.

Liam Fox, a chairman of the Conservative Party, recently boasted about its new "Voter Vault" software. "Previously we decided on a central message. Now we can conduct bespoke campaigning," he said.

In practical terms, it means that campaign literature targeted at those people living in postcodes identified as occupied by the Urban Intelligence group are likely to get campaign material on Tory policy on public services rather than immigration.

"They're a very interesting group, economically conservative but socially liberal," Dr Fox said. "They're more concerned about crime but less about Europe, and they worry about education rather than asylum and immigration."

At a meeting with Dr Fox and Mr Crosby on Friday, Tory MPs were encouraged to use the new system to develop "precision strikes".

There is considerable scepticism among some about the extent to which the new software will help target resources. One senior Labour strategist was dismissive of attempts to "fetishise" marketing tools, while admitting that the party was also using Mosaic.

Professor Nick O'Shaughnessy, an expert on political marketing, says the burgeoning availability of commercial data about individuals has the potential to revolutionise the way election campaigns are fought. "Increasingly, we are being spoken to as a member of a particular tribe rather than as a mass electorate. The ability of parties to access our external, consumer personalities through consumer data increases their ability to manipulate us 10-fold."