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.


  • 12 April 2010 at 9:36am
    Phil Edwards says:
    are also behind that software that spookily knows who you are and where you live when you type in your postcode.

    Experian developed the Postcode Address File?

    • 12 April 2010 at 10:00am
      I've never been greeted by name after typing in my postcode, so I'm not sure what you or JL are referring to. But postcode plus house number makes a pretty good index value, which also features prominently in the electoral register - which local councils are legally obliged both to maintain & to sell to whoever wants it. So going from a postcode to a name wouldn't exactly be rocket science (or brain surgery, or collateralised debt obligations, or whatever).

    • 12 April 2010 at 2:08pm
      OK, I think I see what John was getting at. But it's not you or your household that they've got information on - the information is associated with the particular shaded area on the map that your dwelling is in. (And, since that area is defined by the postcodes it contains, matching your dwelling to the right area is not hard.) Extracting that area data from publicly available sources - election returns, the Census, the Integrated Household Survey - is a bit more fiddly, but ultimately all you're doing is disaggregating an area (an electoral ward, a census enumeration district) into a set of points (individual dwellings) then defining a new area (an ACORN or Mosaic district) by drawing a line around a different set of points. Which is clever, but not that clever.

      My point, beyond the sheer pleasure of geeky nitpicking, is that businesses like Experian's are ultimately parasitic - they don't create the information they use. There is a ton of information out there, and agencies like Experian do fiddle with it in some interesting ways. But the real heavy lifting is done by and for the public sector (the Post Office, local authorities, the Office of National Statistics).

  • 12 April 2010 at 9:50am
    Adrian says:
    Having studied experimental psychology (rats and mazes rather than couches and neuroses) I feel confident that, unfortunately, people en masse are pretty predictable. The precision of these results is probably a bit bogus, but by and large these segmented groups may not be so far from the truth. There are truly free thinkers - I would like to think that most LRB readers are a wild mixture of these segments - but electorally there just aren't enough of them to be important. People are also pretty suggestible - tell them implicitly that they're part of a group that acts in a particular way and they tend to do just that, whatever they say - for example, on a day-to-day basis, who among us thinks that we're influenced by advertising? Would that it wasn't so.

    • 12 April 2010 at 4:47pm
      pinhut says: @ Adrian
      The image used on the front of the Labour manifesto is interesting.

      What is destroying politics is the use of techniques taken from marketing and then overused. If I say the Labour manifesto is certainly a 'bold' statement, then anybody who is more than three pages into it will understand exactly what I mean.

      Another example is this, from the Lib Dems:

      "If you want things to be different, really different, choose the party that is different - the Liberal Democrats. There is hope for a different future, a different way of doing things in Brtain, if we’re brave enough to make a fresh start. Change for real, change for good. - Lib Dem “What we stand for”

      This repetition of keywords is nothing but a display of contempt for the voter and all the main parties are at it. This is why it is not unjustified to claim that politicians are all the same, in terms of their posture towards the electorate, it is absolutely the case.

      These techniques, in the scientific nature of their attempt to 'connect with the public' are just a further source of alienation.

  • 12 April 2010 at 11:38am
    postjazz says:
    Having worked on customer segmentation for market purposes and indeed with the MOSAIC data myself, I can agree that it's depressingly easy to group populations in this way and that it can be surprisingly useful depending on the nature of the data to be divided. Of course, one has to look at it with a pinch of salt and remember that there are cross overs and that some groups are more diffuse than others - but surely people do that? The caveats need to be spelled out on every line.

    Also, all of those quizzes on facebook and all over the internet that promise to tell you which Hogwarts house you're in or what tennis player you're most like illustrate the fact that the population will quite happily pigeonhole ITSELf...

    • 12 April 2010 at 6:19pm
      pinhut says: @ postjazz
      Instead of stopping with the tailoring of the message to the electorate, perhaps they could try something regarding, oh, I don't know, the policies?

      Here is an environmental policy that Dave can use, 'biofuels for tanks', because 'there is no reason we can't harm the Afghan people without harming the environment...'

      See, Tories care.

      Brown, on the other hand, is straight out with it, first words of his intro to the manifesto...

      "This General Election is fought as our troops are bravely fighting to defend the safety of the British people and the security of the world in Afghanistan. They bring great pride and credit to our country: we honour and will always support them."

      Is duplicating the verb 'to fight' really such a good idea? Is Gordon Brown really comparing the fighting of an election to fighting a war? It would appear so.

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