Brian Edwards Media

Leadership, Followship and the Tyranny of the Focus Group


Why would a political party hoping to win an election advance policies which it knew or suspected a majority of voters wouldn’t like? The only reason I can think of is that it believed that the pursuit of those policies was in the national interest, that it was, put simply, the right thing to do.

‘The right thing to do’ may not be, and frequently isn’t, the popular thing to do. The present election provides two examples: Labour’s proposed Capital Gains Tax and its declared intention, if it wins the election, to gradually raise the retirement age to 67. Both are, in my submission, the right thing to do, but they come into conflict with the self-interest of the wealthy in the first instance and, in the second, the self-interest of those who feel cheated because the goalposts are to be  moved, however slowly, and their retirement from work deferred.

Advancing such unpopular policies makes it more difficult to get elected because it means persuading people to change their minds rather than simply giving them what they already want. It requires leadership. 

A much easier, but less principled approach, is to find out just what it is that people want and offer them that. I like to call that ‘followship’.

The ‘followship’ approach to policy making has been greatly assisted by the use of ‘focus groups’ to find out just what it is that people want or don’t want. It’s a fairly broad brush type of information-gathering but reliable enough in identifying what’s popular and what isn’t.

What’s popular may not of course be ‘in the national interest’. It may not be ‘the right thing to do’. It may even reflect the lowest common  denominator in social and political judgement, just as television ratings tend to reflect the lowest common denominator in programme taste.

The consequences of bad television are, however, rather less serious than the consequences of bad government. The ‘give them what they want’ or ‘followship’ approach, that is the very raison d’être of the focus group, inherently favours conservative, status quo thinking and is antipathetic towards  forward-thinking or radical social change, however desirable.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the field of  ‘law and order’. The totally discredited view that the best way to deal with criminal offenders is incarceration for ever longer periods of time finds huge support in New Zealand focus group research and has encouraged right-wing governments to build more and bigger prisons, while discouraging left-wing governments from doing much more than making token gestures towards enlightened reform of the justice system.

As someone who has given media advice  to several candidates for the highest office in the land, including David Lange and Helen Clark, I have had the opportunity to observe at close range the influence which focus group research has over policy and decision-making, particularly during election campaigns. And all too often it has stuck in my craw.

It is less that party leaders and spokespeople were induced to promote policies which they did not believe in or knew to be wrong, but that they were dissuaded from promoting policies which they strongly believed in and knew to be right, because the focus group research showed that to promote those policies might  lose them votes. Rather than attempting to change people’s minds, the easier option of underplaying or simply not articulating the unpopular policy was taken. Leadership gave way to followship, principle to cynical pragmatism.

On the whole, I think we should be grateful that the great political idealists of history were not subject to the tyranny of focus group research. It’s hard to imagine Gandhi or the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela asking, ‘What are the focus groups saying?’ before deciding what the right course of action was.


  1. We are a nation of sheep. Followship is the perfect description of the state of our political debate. With a media reliant on ratings and advertising it’s unlikely this will change too…ratings and advertising are purely reliant on the concept.

  2. This is what is repugnant about this present poll driven government. Its all window dressing and short term focus. Perhaps its the electorate that needs to ultimately grow up.

    This election is a watershed of sorts and I would like to see a way that we can get more people into parliament who espouse ‘the right thing to do’.

    At this juncture I am open to suggestions.

  3. Asset sales, anyone?

  4. There is a balance in this as in most things. Like you I am old enough to remember the eighties. Arguably the eighties represented the apogee of this kind of bold leadership in giving the people what they hadn’t asked for on the basis that it was the right thing to do. There are very few (particularly on this website) who would regard that as a triumph of either democracy or policy.

    I well remember the argument being leveled in response to eighties leadership that whatever the people vote for (however objectively stupid) is by definition the right thing to do solely because it is an expression of the popular will. The focus group as you have presented it is but a representation of that approach.

    Personally I favour the bold leadership approach even if at times it throws up radicalism (including capital gains tax and a higher age for pensions) because I simply feel the average punter is insufficiently informed to make all decisions in his or her own interest. I know its elitist but there you are…

  5. Muldoon once said disdainfully, when a referendum was suggested in regard to a particular government policy, that if a referendum was held to determine whether or not to continue with taxation, taxation would be thrown out. That didn’t stop him making the 1975 election a virtual referendum on the already introduced compulsory superannuation of the time. The result proved his point.

  6. There is no certainty that people will vote in their own best interests. Governments are chosen by the floating voters most of whom have little interest or understanding of the issues. This group is easily influenced by any number of factors. Living as I do in a rural community I know many people who’s best interest would be served by joining a union and voting for a left leaning candidate, but I know very well they will be voting National on Saturday. Makes no sense but there you are.

  7. We now have this populist system of the focus group and giving people what they want. Does it it preclude us from having visionary idealist leaders? I think so. They would not fit in to the pattern which has evolved. This is at great cost to us as nation. We could do with a few good leaders just now.

  8. It doesn’t matter what Labour says or wants, they are going to be eviscerated in the election. The party is all but dead already, and good riddance to the socialist riff-raff, it’s long overdue.

    John Key is all we need for now and the future, and is without a doubt the finest leader this nation has ever known. We owe him a huge debt.

    No doubt the cadre of Labour’s pinko proles will now howl in outrage about the truths I’ve written, but it doesn’t matter because Labour and its last dozen or so supporters are entirely irrelevant.

    Roll on another National victory, and another few terms with a government who knows how to successfully run a country.

    PS: Asset Sales are a done deal. Tough luck and get used to it!

  9. Why is it that normal, intelligent people who have completed primary school, use the expression “lowest common denominator” when they obviously mean “highest common factor”?

  10. 10

    Nick Easterbrook-Smith

    Having just watched the Inside Child Poverty documentary on TV3, I am so angry with myself as a late baby-boomer, and with our society for its inward looking, selfish ethos, but especially with our politicians of the last 20 years for their absolute reluctance to do, as you say, what should be done rather than what will win, or at worst, what won’t lose votes. This in the same week we get the statistic that the wealthiest 1% of New Zealanders have three times the net worth of the poorest 50%. Michael Joseph Savage; what have we done to this country?

  11. New zealand has all the bits lying around that are needed for a robust intellectual culture, theyre just not assembled yet. The theologian david burrell talks about how ideology and ritual are inseperable, and while we remain steeped in consumer rituals (repetitive practices like shopping or tv watching), while our cities are dominated by shopping malls, we will be a consumer polity. With debate and discussion at the centre of our society, we could have a chance at being a democratic polity of citizens.

  12. Tonight we saw the Minister of Health (we know he is on the side of the goodies because he wears one of those pink bits of ribbon on his lapel) reminding us that the reason his government has avoided doing anything positive for the health of children is because to do so would be to resurrect the “nanny” state.

  13. 13

    Lucy Telfar Barnard

    A succint description of why I couldn’t bring myself to vote for Labour (or National) in this election. I couldn’t bear to vote for any party whose leadership continues to speak in “focus-groupese”. It’s like nutrasweet, or margarine. You can tell it’s not genuine, and it leaves a nasty aftertaste in your mouth. Worst example: “ordinary kiwis” (as far as I can tell the media advisors and focus groups have banned calling voters anything else). A sub-category of this offence is “kiwi mums and dads”. When I hear a candidate say either, I want to slap them.

  14. 14

    Bryan, a bit for balance here please. You praise Labour for advancing unpopular policies which you agree with but fail to acknowledge National’s asset sale policy. We all know the latter policy is unpopular and you might even disagree with it but you should at least recognise that they are taking a big risk with advancing that policy and John Key and co must surely believe it is in the best interests of New Zealand.

  15. 15

    “The inevitable outcome of focus groups is slogans and carefully crafted images. Substance and balance is to be avoided at all costs because we the populace are deemed to be not sufficiently intelligent or interested. It’s a depressing spectacle that our politicians are rated for their performance in a debate rather than the substance of their arguments.

    It amazes me that our current government is allegedly so popular when the facts are that the out of work and the working classes of NZ art slowly having their remaining wealth transferred to those who need it the least.

  16. @Eric Dutton

    You are confused because the word “lowest” has multiple meanings.

    In the mathematical phrase “lowest common denominator”, “lowest common” means “least common”.

    In the political phrase “lowest common denominator”, “lowest” means “base”, or “lowly”.

    Words can mean different things according to their context.

    I’m glad you completed primary school. Welcome to secondary school.