If a bank says it wants to hear your views, you assume they've lost a billion to a plausible fellow from Mexico. If a supermarket chain, then it's just wiped out Eastbourne with the Tagliatelli Surprise. Whether it's takeover threats or crashes, empty reservoirs, redundancies, hideous new road plans, or embarrassingly large pay rises for the board, the promise of "consultation" is a corporate distress-flare, the last throw of desperate PR departments everywhere.
And so it tends to be in politics too. Attempting to overcome the disaster of the early Eighties, Labour leaders took to touring school halls under the slogan "Labour listens". A dispirited Roy Hattersley was harangued by assorted maniacs in T-shirts while a grim-looking Peter Mandelson, then in his moustache-wearing days, stood taking notes.
Over the past year the Conservatives, facing their own little troubles, have conducted a similar exercise with their party members. Cabinet ministers have been dispatched around the country to be told off by some of the 30,000 people who turned up to 800-plus meetings. Yesterday, an edited version of the tellings-off was published under the title, Listening to the Conservative Party.
And what do we hear? Only that the Conservative Party is Conservative, being strongly in favour of the Union Jack, low taxes, identity cards, hanging and inherited wealth, and similarly against federalists, scroungers, red tape, juvenile crime and recreational drugs. Surprise, surprise.
Certainly the Tory hierarchy, who had commissioned the exercise, cannot have been surprised by a word of the published result. Its impact on their manifesto-making will be limited. Activists are not typical of the wider electorate at which the party must aim, so their views, however pungent, need to be diluted and in some cases ignored.
For that reason, Danny Finkelstein and the clever fellows at Central Office will not linger late into the night worrying about what Tory activists in Milton Keynes think of the welfare state. They, the party chairman Brian Mawhinney and the Prime Minister himself will rely on polling, focus groups and their instincts before they turn to the activists. Like most such exercises, this has been aimed at morale, not policy. The attitude is: "Let them get it off their chests and go home feeling they've been heard. It will cheer them up immensely."
At first sight, my theory about listening exercises being a distress signal is demolished by the dramatic news, also announced yesterday, that Labour is to design its election manifesto only after, in John Prescott's words, "the largest, most ambitious consultation process ever undertaken by a political party", and that this is to be followed by a ballot of all Labour members on the draft election manifesto.
The answer is that this is not a listening exercise at all. It is a telling exercise. It is about telling the party, and telling the country.
These days, Labour policy is made behind closed doors in a process as opaque, private and controlled as most of what happens in Whitehall; in that rather depressing respect, shadow ministers are better prepared for office than is generally realised.
This won't be changed by the programme of meetings and speeches that Labour announced yesterday. Nor is the pledge to put the draft, slimmed- down manifesto to a ballot of all Labour members nearly as radical a step as Tony Blair and his colleagues suggest. In the autumn, party members will be offered a straight yes-or-no to Labour's likely manifesto commitments on all the other issues, with no room to register dissent about this or that, or to list preferred priorities.
By the time it happens the election will seem very close. How many people would want to vote down their own party manifesto just before an election? If this vote embarrasses Blair it is more likely to do so by the overwhelmingly, North Korean-style 99.8 per cent majority he wins than by evidence of serious internal dissent.
This will lead some people to dismiss the tactic as another meaningless PR stunt. The temptation is increased by the numbing, tumpety-tum prose considered essential for new-Labour launches: "We are proud of our past but we are not living in it." Or: "This new programme ... is not about soft options but about making hard choices." I find this has the curious effect of making one play the tune backwards: "We are living in our past, but we are not proud of it ... we must take soft options, not hard choices."
But formulaic language aside, the Blair tactic isn't at all meaningless. It is clever, and may even be important to the wider democracy. For what he has created could be described as a foolproof anti-betrayal machine, even an anti-cynicism plan.
In the past, Labour prime ministers have tended to be elected on a surge of utterly unrealistic expectation, particularly among idealistic party members. They were set targets so high that failure was inevitable and party conferences were bound to bay "betrayal". Neil Kinnock used to speak, with a savage grin, about "getting his betrayal in first" by cutting back on old Labour promises.
Blair is going still further. He is lowering his own hurdles. He will campaign on a strictly limited list of manifesto promises, to which the party collectively will be committed through a rerun of Blair's direct, Clause IV appeal to members. Old pledges will be ruthlessly jettisoned and priorities established. That starts today, with the junking of a long- promised plan for training levies. It is bound to be a painful and controversial process. But once it is over, and approved by party ballot, I think it will greatly strengthen Blair before, during and after the election.
Before the election, Conservative charges of a hidden agenda will look less plausible. The party activists will be locked into the cautious manifesto, whose essential points will be known well before the frantic three-week election campaign.
If Blair then wins, both over-enthusiastic activists and suspicious voters would know what to expect. They would have a simple check-list to use in judging Blair as a prime minister; a check-list he himself has chosen. It takes no account of the crises and surprises of life, which can break governments. But if by 2002 Blair had legislated for, say, 10 out of a dozen measures he had promised in 1997, that would mean something real.
It might even provide a route back to a more trusted polity, offering a real contract and so dispelling some of the current cynicism about politicians. But note: it does this by offering a tough, clear lead, not by democratising the organisation, or offering to consult. It is the act of a leader whose ambition to be the Margaret Thatcher of the centre-left is unmistakeable and who is narrowing his eyes on the ultimate prize.