Steve Richards: Lessons from the focus group on the ocean waves

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The Independent Online

Guided as ever by a sense of altruistic duty, I spent part of my August holiday with more than a thousand floating voters. Admittedly, this was not a conventional focus group of politically undecided representatives from Middle England. My group was literally afloat.

For two weeks, I and several other more distinguished speakers gave talks on a cruise that travelled around Norway. The electoral science may have been less precise compared with the groups assembled expensively by political parties, but there are lessons to be learnt. After all, for two weeks, there was no escape from me and, when I come to think about it, I could not escape from them. Together, we were a floating focus group all at sea and with no choice but to find out more about each other.

My group consisted of mainly retired people. What makes their views and attitudes distinctly relevant is that, from what I could tell, most of them planned to vote. They still bought and read newspapers avidly and watched the television news. What is more, they have a large amount of disposable income.

They are the last generation of the relatively elderly who acquired generous pensions after retiring early, and some also inherited properties worth a fortune. They have paid off their mortgages. As those of us still in the height of our youth had cause to reflect, it will not be like that for us. A lot of them were busy booking at least four cruises a year. Unlike the young, who are up to their ears in debt, this group is an advertisers' dream, a politicians' ideal target, and not bad for those in the media seeking bigger audiences. Most of them can still spend, spend, spend.

The first surprise for me was the intense interest in politics. I am so used to hearing and reading that people are not interested that I assumed it was true. I confessed at the beginning of the cruise to my fellow speakers that I was worried no one would turn up to hear my talks on what the leaders, former leaders and others were really like, the drama and the theatre of what for me has always been an extraordinary world. Yet the meetings were so packed they had to be moved each time to bigger theatres. This was nothing to do with me. I happened to tap an intense interest in the drama of politics which is rarely met these days by some TV channels and some newspapers.

I am sure if voters are asked – in a focus group, perhaps – whether they find politics "boring", a lot would instinctively reply "yes". But scratch beneath the surface and there is as much interest as there has ever been, not surprisingly when politics is a great soap opera where no one, including the leading players, knows what will happen next. It is also a unique drama in that what happens touches our lives.

Here is the first lesson of my floating focus group. I have no doubt if a newspaper or television channel dared to go upmarket in innovative and entertaining ways, it would find an audience eating out of its hands. If the BBC did so, it would find more support for the licence fee.

These people do not want hyped-up news stories. They already regard the actual news as alarmingly sensational enough. They seek more explanation as to how we are where we are. Why has Brown fallen so quickly? What's gone wrong with the economy? What is Cameron in politics for?

I was also surprised by the reasonable tone of the questions. Such is the scale of global uncertainties, there is little space or appetite for dogmatism. They do not want to read simplistic assertions that Brown or Cameron are a disaster. They know it is all more complex than that. I suspect that around three quarters of them were Conservative voters, although one passenger I spoke to put it higher. Coming from the minority wing on the cruise, he described it despairingly as the Conservative Party at sea.

If this was the Tory party on holiday, it had an open-minded quality. Many of them said they thought the next election would be much closer than the polls suggested. Quite a few told me there was no scope for tax cuts. Some had doubts about Cameron, not because they saw him as too left-wing, but because they do not know very much about him. Cameron's rise from nowhere is his big advantage. He seems fresh and new. But there is a potential problem for a leader who surfaces without a clearly defined context. There are bound to be doubts about where he is going and why.

What of Gordon Brown? Some Labour voters admired him, but thought that he was doomed at the election, not before then. They expressed no great enthusiasm for a David Miliband leadership in the near future. Across the spectrum, there were a lot of questions about the economy. Many of them blamed Brown for the current economic situation. The abolition of the 10p tax band came up repeatedly. Again, they wanted to know why he had made such a mistake. One accountant said that he knew on the day of the relevant Budget that low earners would lose out. Why did Brown not realise?

Why? Why? Why? They wanted the mysteries solved.

I was surprised to find that there was still lurking some residual respect for Brown. When one of the other speakers said she admired him and thought he had been unlucky over the past year, I thought she might be booed off the stage. Instead there were quite a few who indicated agreement, and not a single protestation. Perhaps they were being polite. But I suspect they are not the type to write off big political figures entirely.

So what are the broader lessons of my floating focus group? I sense that the Tory lead is big, but soft. Cameron needs to convince some of his own voters about what he is about. Quite a few worry about the inexperience of the Tory leadership as it faces a fragile economy. I did not get the impression that Brown is as despised as some polls and newspapers suggest. But unless he can reclaim credit for his economic record as Chancellor, make sense of what is happening now and offer credible hope for the future, he is doomed. If he can do these things, the battle between experience and inexperience becomes more potent.

As for the media – bring these politicians to life, explain what they are all about, and an affluent audience with time on its hands becomes available.

Perhaps they are doomed to be ignored. Michael Parkinson tells me that when he secured high audience figures for his ITV chat show, the then head of the channel said to him, "Yes, but you have got the wrong audience." Perhaps they are the wrong audience, but my floating focus group will be voting, reading, watching and spending.

Mind you, the conveners of focus groups are notorious for finding out what they want to hear.