Blunt Little Tool
John Lanchester · Parcelling Up the Electorate
We tremble on the verge of greatness today, as the first of the parties – Labour – sets out its manifesto. I’ll comment on it after I’ve read it.
In the meantime, a look at how modern politics is conducted, in practice. In this election, one of the Tories’ main tools is a ‘consumer categorisation’ package called Mosaic, developed by the data management company Experian. They are one of the big credit ratings firms, and are also behind that software that spookily knows who you are and where you live when you type in your postcode.
Mosaic is one of Experian’s ‘suite’ of services, as the corporate term has it. The package takes demographic, economic and spending data and uses it to break down the population of the UK into categories.
Do click on the link. Mosaic is well worth a look, and is very striking for its mixture of first hand research and thundering clichés. The population of the UK is represented by 15 groups, broken down into 67 household categories – one of which will be applied to you, whoever you are, by Mosaic’s all-knowing postcode-centred database. The categories are accompanied by little character sketches. So who are you?
At the top is ‘Alpha Territory’ consisting of groups such as ‘Global Power Brokers’, ‘Voices of Authority’, ‘Business Class’ and ‘Serious Money’; its members include Piers and Imogen: ‘If not found on their own private yacht, then they are most likely to be seen in the business or first class cabins of airlines, to holiday in their own foreign property and to enjoy the service of exclusive hotels and restaurants.’ They sound lovely. Group C for ‘Rural Solitude’ consists of five subgroups: ‘Squires among Locals, Country Loving Elders, Modern Agribusiness, Farming Today, Upland Struggle’. Group F are ‘Suburban Mindsets’. You know who you are: ‘Garden Suburbia, Production Managers, Mid-Market Families, Shop Floor Affluence, Asian Attainment.’
But where are all the LRB readers? Maybe down here in the bottom group, O for Liberal Opinions, consisting as it does of ‘Convivial Homeowners, Crash Pad Professionals, Urban Cool, Bright Young Things, Anti-Materialists, University Fringe, Study Buddies.’ Can’t you simultaneously be a Voice of Authority, a Convivial Homeowner and Urban Cool? Don’t be stupid.
On behalf of the entire electorate, this makes me feel like Hannibal Lecter being handed a questionnaire by Clarice Starling: ‘You think you can dissect me with this blunt little tool?’ The answer to that question is yes, they think they can. They really do think they can pigeonhole us with this precision. They really do think we are that predictable, that boring, that easily segmented and parcelled. This is the market-centred view of the electorate. This is also an answer to the question we will have to reface with the manifestos, about why modern politics seem so small.