Q: Do you think we should govern by focus group?

'The Government's image and presentation problems arise from worrying aboutimage and presentation'
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The Independent Online

During the last Labour premiership, that of Jim Callaghan, a highly sensitive Cabinet Paper on child benefit was leaked to Frank Field, then running the Child Poverty Action Group, who wrote it up in the magazine New Society. Callaghan was sufficiently incensed to call in Scotland Yard. At one point in an interview with a young - and wholly innocent - policy unit member, Commander Roy Habershon, the officer conducting the enquiry, mopped his brow and, uttering a mild expletive, confided how much he wished he was "back on the bomb squad". The culprit, needless to say, was never found.

During the last Labour premiership, that of Jim Callaghan, a highly sensitive Cabinet Paper on child benefit was leaked to Frank Field, then running the Child Poverty Action Group, who wrote it up in the magazine New Society. Callaghan was sufficiently incensed to call in Scotland Yard. At one point in an interview with a young - and wholly innocent - policy unit member, Commander Roy Habershon, the officer conducting the enquiry, mopped his brow and, uttering a mild expletive, confided how much he wished he was "back on the bomb squad". The culprit, needless to say, was never found.

Perhaps it will prove possible to trace the person responsible for exposing Tony Blair's highly confidential memorandum on "Touchstone Issues"; but if he or she is identified it will prove a spectacular exception to the iron law of Whitehall history that leakers are never found. Which means that speculation about who was responsible - though it is the one issue which consumed Downing Street yesterday - should concern it less than what it reveals about the style and culture of the present government - and how both can still be modified if there is a will to do so.

The memo incidentally sheds valuable light on the British political system by underlining the limitations on the power of a prime minister - even one as dominant as this one. In his warnings about the need to maintain defence spending, and to take urgent action on street crime, there is more than a subliminal hint of his frustration at powerful departments that may think differently - such as the Treasury and the Home Office respectively.

Unfortunately for the Government, though, it is not as a useful text for political-science students that the memorandum is causing most interest. The main effect, because of its emphasis on how government and prime minister are "perceived", is to reinforce the assumption that the Government is unhealthily preoccupied with image, the concerns of focus groups and the populist press. And the secondary but related one, at least in the Labour Party, will be that it is much more sensitive to criticisms from the right than the left.

As usual, not all of this is necessarily unfair. The subject of this memo, after all, is specifically a cluster of issues on which Mr Blair is agitated that the Government appears soft. At least on asylum he stresses the need to publicise deserving cases as well as to crack down on undeserving ones. And he does say that the Government "message" on these issues should follow analysis and the "correct policy response" - not the other way round.

But then it isn't a wholly fair world. And in any case the Government, as it was beginning to realise before this leak, is largely to blame for this perception. Before the election New Labour, with stunning ruthlessness and professionalism, used the press to convey its message. Once in office, the Blairites found, first that there would never be reliable cheerleaders for them, as at least two mass circulation newspapers had been for Margaret Thatcher, and second that much of the press turned on it. The biter bit.

The press was by no means blameless; some of those who most willingly took the spin are now among those most vigorously protesting about what an evil thing it is. Much of the Government's presentational activity since has therefore been an attempt to bypass the press - like the certainly misconceived annual report - much of it frankly propagandist and incredible.

Indeed that is at the heart of the deep fears within government about today's Comprehensive Spending Review. This time the figures are real: the Government has an excellent story to tell. Many of the departmental plans are genuinely imaginative. It is the most robust and dramatic answer yet to critics within the party who have complained that the Government has tried to renew Britain without substantial additional public spending. But will anybody believe it?

So what's the answer? One, surely, is to take Parliament more seriously than Tony Blair has so far.

Oddly, help, if ministers want to take it, comes from deep inside the Tory party. Lord Norton's report for William Hague on "Strengthening Parliament" is a seminal document that deserves much closer attention on the left than it has yet received. Its recommendation that select committees be freed from the stifling control of the whips - echoed unanimously by the liaison committee of select committee chairmen - is only one of many desirable constitutional reforms laid out in its elegantly argued 65 pages. But it goes a long way to symbolise the Norton aspiration to strengthen what remains, for all the sporadic attempts to prove otherwise, the British system of representative democracy.

In his eloquent introduction Lord Norton sums up: "[Parliament] alone has the constitutional authority to give assent to measures of public policy. People do not go to the polls to elect newspaper proprietors or the political editor of the BBC... or pressure groups. The courts do not enforce views expressed in public opinion polls. They enforce Acts of Parliament..." This is a timely reminder to a governing party still mesmerised by the power of unelected newspaper proprietors.

This is fine, if you really believe in representative democracy. But early in this parliament, first Peter Mandelson and then Tony Blair spoke as if the representative form was only one kind of democracy. Despite the denials, it was hard to escape the conclusion that by this they were elevating focus groups to a role in the democratic process.

Focus groups, largely under the supervision of Philip Gould, one of the three named recipients of the leaked memo, were a vital part of Labour's transformation. They remain an important measurement of public opinion for any modern political leader. But the one thing, so far as I know, that focus groups are never asked is: "Do you think government strategy should be based on discussions with focus groups or do you think parliament should be more important than it is?"

Backbench MPs, for all their faults, remain closer to the electorate than the hard-pressed executive. By treating them - not least its own backbenchers when it has the huge majority of the sort Labour has at present - better and sometimes bending to their views, a government ensures that the national argument is conducted by the elected and not the unelected. A revitalised parliament would make governments less reliant on a frequently hysterically hostile press. The artistic parallel for Tony Blair conversing with Parliament much more than he does is to forsake the movies and return to the live theatre.

This is a better government than its outward behaviour often suggests. Indeed virtually all the presentation and image problems it has suffered from arise from its worrying over-much about image and presentation. Talking of family policy in his memo, Mr Blair at one point demands policies that "are entirely conventional". More pertinently, it may be time to return to a politics that is more "entirely conventional."

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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