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Christina Patterson: Forget the 'Suburban Sarahs' and tell us what you want to do


Sometimes, a politician does something so embarrassing that you almost hope for a news blackout, so that people fighting for democracy in the Arab world don't change their mind.

Sure, the duck houses were bad, and so were the biscuits and the bath plugs. Sure, the bragging about wars on Murdoch, to "constituents" who were young, pretty and, in fact, journalists, was less than ideal. So were the points for speeding, and the lesbian lover, and the horror of an MP that rioters weren't, in the summer holidays, at school. But none of this makes the heart sink quite as much as news of a pamphlet suggesting that what Labour needs to do to win the next election is to target the "suburban Sarahs and Simons" and "commuting Christophers and Chloes".

The pamphlet was written by a former teacher who's now an MP. Gareth Thomas, the MP for Harrow West, may or may not have happy childhood memories of The Good Life. He may, or may not, have been excited, in 1990, when a journalist coined the phrase "Essex Man", and in 1992 when The Sun claimed that this new brand of human won John Major his election. He may, or may not, have felt a nice warm glow when he heard that the Tories were trying to woo "Worcester Woman", and when Labour was trying to win over "Mondeo Man". And when the words "suburban" and "Sarah" and "commuting" and "Christopher" sprang into his head, he may or may not have wanted to leap out of his bath.

But I'm afraid what I felt when I heard about it was what I felt when my father started trying to grow sideburns, and when my aunt suggested that my mother and I, and her two elderly guests, should, before we had pudding, sing Swedish songs. What I felt was "please, please don't".

I know that thinking, and giving speeches, and meeting your constituents (unless they're from the Telegraph) isn't all that exciting, and nor is writing pamphlets, unless they make you leap out of your bath. Nor, even, is scoring points over your honourable friend, if the husband of a reality TV star will let you. All of this feels like one of those Iranian films where you watch plums ripening in an orchard compared to The Terminator thrill of power. I know that you can't change the law, or policy, or the education system, or the healthcare system; you can't change anything, in fact, unless you're in government, and to be in government you have to win an election, and to win an election you have to fight one, and you need armour, weapons, and a plan. But still. But still.

Suburban Sarahs and Simons and Commuting Christophers and Chloes are, according to the pamphlet, worried that they "will find it harder to make ends meet in a year or two's time". They are worried that if the Tories win at the next election there will be "lower living standards" and "worse public services". But they "would not be willing to pay higher taxes even if there were a guarantee that the extra money would be used to improve healthcare, increase benefits for retired people and provide more money for schools". They are, in other words, just like the rest of us: anxious, and confused.

It isn't clear exactly what the Labour Party is meant to do to target these people, just as it hasn't been clear for any party how to target what Ed Miliband calls "the squeezed middle" and Nick Clegg calls "alarm clock Britain". The "squeezed middle", according to Miliband in a truly terrible interview on the Today programme, is about 90 per cent of the population. "Alarm clock Britain" seems to be everyone who ever has to get out of bed. What the Squeezed Sarahs and Alarmed Angelas want is job security, better services and lower taxes. For this, they need not a Labour government, but a messiah.

It was Philip Gould, that "architect" of New Labour (but not an architect like Albert Speer), who pioneered the focus group approach to British elections. It won, or helped to win, Labour three elections in a row. Those victories changed British society, and British politics. They made Labour politicians schooled in "offers on the table" and "solemn and binding agreements" learn how to speak to people who weren't in trade unions. They made Tory politicians start talking about the need to "decontaminate" their brand. They also meant that no policy could be suggested by any political party before it had been discussed by a group of random members of the public who didn't really know what they thought about anything.

Most people in this country support capital punishment. Most people like the idea that teenagers caught up in mass hysteria should have their lives wrecked. Most people even seem to think that people who earn six times as much as they do shouldn't pay a higher rate of tax. They believe these things because their parents, and newspapers, and even sometimes their politicians, tell them they should. But, like all of us, and like a jury when presented with a powerful case by a lawyer, and like this government, which seems to have done U-turns on almost everything, they can change their mind.

I have no idea what David Cameron really thinks about anything. I don't have much idea what Ed Miliband does either, except that he seemed to want to lead the Labour Party an awful lot. But I think it would make a nice change if politicians stopped quizzing the Confused Chloes and the Selfish Sarahs on their blueprint for Utopia. If they stopped, in fact, trying to give us what we say we want, and started trying to make us want something better.

When lions, tigers and power aren't enough

When a dictator falls, certain patterns emerge. There are, nearly always, deaths. There are, nearly always, secret prisons, and secret tunnels, and tales of torture and rape. And there are, nearly always, little snapshots of the dictator's life that make you think of what Hannah Arendt said about the "banality of evil".

It's not just the photo albums of Condoleezza Rice, or the DVDs of gay porn. It's not just the mermaid sofa, or the giant spinning teacups. It's the idea of a whole dynasty living in a giant playpen. Saif, Gaddafi's heir apparent, would, according to guests, disappear to feed his tigers and come back looking bloody and bruised. The blood, apparently, was bought in a joke shop. His brother Saadi visited his lions every day. But all this money, and all this power, and all these lions and tigers, weren't enough. "All of the members of the Gaddafi family," said the director of the zoo this week, in a lesson to dictators everywhere, "were not happy."

Wise words by one star about another

Although you wouldn't necessarily expect actors to speak sensibly about politics, this week one has. He's better known as the world's most famous commitmentphobe, and his name is George Clooney. As the star of a new film about an American politician, he was asked if he might think about running for the White House himself. "There is," he said, in a timely reminder that not all leaders are crazed despots, "a guy in office right now who is smarter than almost anybody you know... who is having an almost impossible time governing. Why," he said, "would anybody volunteer for that job?" Why indeed? And why, he didn't add, but might have, didn't journalists understand that what he was doing was, you know, acting.