NEWS16 March 2017

Politicians ‘should never make policy on the basis of focus groups’

Impact 2017 Media News Public Sector UK

UK - Ed Balls warned that politicians ‘should never make policy on the basis of focus groups’, while praising the use of research to help shape the arguments and methodologies behind political measures.


The former Labour MP and shadow chancellor, who surprised a nation of TV viewers into liking him thanks to his dancing moves on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, was in conversation with Deborah Mattinson, founder-director of Britain Thinks and with whom Balls worked during his Labour years.

After walking on stage to the show’s theme tune, Balls admitted to the audience at the MRS annual conference, Impact 2017, that he felt “a bit of terror” hearing the music.

But he reflected that upon losing his seat in 2015, a point when he “didn’t know what was coming up in the next two years”, that "if you’d told me I’d become a reality TV star and that Jeremy Corbyn would win a leadership election twice, I’d have thought you were completely mad.”

The self-described “recently retired former professional dancer” is pretty sure that he will not return to politics, having heeded the advice of former Tory MP Michael Portillo, who once told Balls that his biggest regret was going back into politics.

“I think it’s always bad in life to go back and repeat what you’ve done and hope you do better at it. You’ve got to look forward to and ask ‘What are the new challenges?’

“I consciously thought that I wanted to go forward and do something different,” he said. “I think I’ve learned – there’s always a prism between the public and politicians. People don’t actually see through the prism, they see politicians on the make and ‘not one of us’.

“The interesting thing for me was that the prism was taken away [thanks to ‘Strictly’] and people said ‘it’s good to find out you’re a human being as well', adding that "my former colleagues [also] found it a humanising thing for politics.”

Expanding on how the general public views MPs, Balls insisted that the vast majority of politicians are misrepresented by public and media perception: “they work hard have families, make mistakes”, and are only human. When they succeed, he said, it goes largely unnoticed, when they mess up, a furore ensues.

“We’ve always been a society like that – we’ve always been cautious, sceptical about anyone in power.”

Balls also reflected on the government’s and current chancellor Philip Hammond’s budgetary U-turn on a “brave” National Insurance hike for the self-employed. Balls suspects that Hammond went through the process and was forced into a reversal by Theresa May.

While he described the situation as either a “farce” or incompetence, leaning towards the former, Balls appeared most derisive of the current state of the Labour Party.

What did he think of the state of Labour at the moment under the helm of Jeremy Corbyn. A shrug and laughter spoke volumes. “Shall we talk about ‘Strictly’?” he said.

But he became more expansive, arguing that Labour’s obsession with “existing only for its members” hampered any chance it had of appealing to a broader swathe of the electorate. “You have to make sure your views and aspirations are close to the views of the views and aspirations of the people you want to vote for you,” he said.

Can Labour win the next General Election? “You have to have an open mind,” he said.

Addressing his attitude towards market research, Balls spoke about his use of insight and focus groups during his political life, how they are “hugely important in different ways”. For instance, he dismissed the efficacy of polls without the application of underlying segmentation, which is necessary to truly understand what is happening among an electorate. “I’m an economist, so I want to know about the data,” he said.

When the Labour Party raised taxes in 2001 to help fund the NHS, Balls and his team used polling to combat people’s innate scepticism about using a tax rise for a social service. Polls and focus groups helped shape the argument and method the party used, with National Insurance seen as the best tax to raise as there was a perception that NI contributions went directly into public services (when in reality all taxation goes into the same coffer). While then-chancellor Gordon Brown thought they would lose the argument, as Mattinson said, it became the “most popular tax rise ever”.

“You should never make policy on the basis of focus groups,” Balls said. “But you learn a lot about language and the things that matter to people.”