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The British Helsinki Human Rights Group monitors human rights and democracy in the 57 OSCE member states from the United States to Central Asia.
* Monitoring the conduct of elections in OSCE member states.
* Examining issues relating to press freedom and freedom of speech
* Reporting on conditions in prisons and psychiatric institutions

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David Cameron: Comet or Icarus?
HITS: 1991 | 17-06-2004, 22:06 | Commentaire(s): (0) |
 (Votes #: 0)

Is he the Tories’ Harry Potter or Wendell Willkie?

The Manufacturing of the Candidate

As Tony Blair’s power-base in Britain wobbles despite winning a third successive general election (but with only 36% of the This Private Eye cover says it allpopular vote) Britain’s media is hailing a bright new star in its political firmament. On 6th December, the world’s oldest political party, Britain’s Conservatives (also known as Tories) chose 39 year-old David Cameron as their leader. Until the last few weeks, “David who?” would have been the reaction of most of his fellow citizens. What a turnaround![1] Three months ago David Cameron was barely known to the British public. In September, 2005, only 4% of a BBC poll saw him as the best man to lead the Conservative Party. Even on the eve of the Tory Party Conference in October, only 13% of a nationwide poll backed Cameron. Yet after a single television focus group on BBC 2’s “Newsnight” programme, 39% of Tory activists polled suddenly put the 38-year-old Shadow Education Secretary ahead of all his rivals for the leadership of the Conservative Party.[2]

What does the Tories’ choice of Cameron mean for Britain and the world? And what does the manner of how he came to be chosen tell us about the state of British democracy?

Readers of this Group’s reports on post-Soviet elections will be used to the sudden appearance of a new candidate or party which achieves instant approval from the Western media, analysts and Western-funded local NGOs and goes into battle against various “mad” or “bad” locals with universal backing. Even if such “Jack-in-a-box” candidates frequently turn out to have been chosen by focus groups organised and sponsored by Americans[3], surely it couldn’t happen here, could it?

Cameron’s behind-the-scenes involvement in Tory disasters over the last fifteen years was forgotten if ever known by the public or Tory party members. Grainy film of him standing behind his first political patron, Chancellor Norman Lamont, on Black Wednesday in September, 1992, when the Pound was ejected ignominiously from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) only surfaced late in the leadership campaign. His role in drafting the third successive election-losing manifesto in 2005 was largely ignored.

Yet David Cameron’s sudden emergence from complete obscurity as an Old Etonian backroom boy during the debacles of the Major years - only an MP since 2001 - to near universal media adulation and stunning poll numbers and the leadership of the Conservative Party may be presented in the British press as unprecedented, but in politics there is rarely anything with as long a track record as the unparalleled.

The long-drawn out campaign to choose the Conservative Party’s fifth leader since the fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 has been greeted almost universally as a triumph for a party which fell short of 200 seats in each general election since 1997. Over the six months since Michael Howard announced his resignation in May, 2005, following Tony Blair’s re-election, the candidates for his succession have been featured on television, radio and in the press to an unprecedented degree.

What has been most striking is the unanimous support of anti-Conservative voices for David Cameron. All the more remarkable has been how far traditionally pro-Conservative media have swooned for him too. Unanimity of opinion in politics is always the mark of a grave error about to be committed. Think of any matter on which the Great and Good have been united and the shadow of disaster looms over it.

So how did an obscure young toff leap frog ahead of well-known and, by recent Tory standards, even popular leadership candidates? How did David Cameron pull it off?

Although great emphasis was placed on his ability to speak for fifteen or so minutes without notes at the Blackpool Conservative Party conference on 4th October – although no-one seems to remember what he said other than the repeated use of words like “new”, “hope” and “modern” – in fact, the Cameron bandwagon had already been set rolling the day before.

History may judge that it was what Australians call a media “beat up” that did the trick. A single television programme was used to set the Cameron juggernaut in motion. Rupert Murdoch’s premier tabloid used to boast after the Tories trounced Neil Kinnock’s Labour, “It was the Sun wot won it.” After Cameron’s victory how long will it be before we hear the boast, “It was Newsnight wot won it”?

Who is Frank Luntz?

Everybody agrees on the moment that ignited David Cameron’s candidacy. On 3rd October, at the height of the Conservative Party annual conference in Blackpool, BBC 2’s Newsnight asked the American opinion pollster, Frank Luntz, to put the 5 declared candidates for Michael Howard’s succession to a focus group. Although few knew much about David Cameron at the start of the session, when Luntz had finished presenting the candidates, old familiar faces and even younger rivals all fell by the wayside as the group plunged en bloc for Cameron. “David Cameron has reinvented politics for me,” Luntz concluded.[4]

The next day the Cameron campaign website was cock a’hoop about its media coup. “Cameron momentum builds” it declared noting that in the sample group leading US election guru Frank Luntz showed Cameron to be the overwhelming choice of a group of Consevative leaning voters…. 23 opted for Cameron, 5 chose Liam Fox, and none supported Kenneth Clarke, David Davis or Malcolm Rifkind. ” Cameron’s webpage quoted the “veteran” pollster – in fact a rough contemporary of Cameron at Oxford – as declaring, “David Cameron is exactly what swing voters are looking for in a Conservative leader.” [5]

Michael Portillo, once the leader-in-waiting told readers of The Sunday Times Cameron’s “roll began with the sensational findings from a focus group survey conducted for BBC’s Newsnight by the American pollster Frank Luntz. Once voters had been shown Cameron’s speeches, they flocked to his support.”

Portillo described the mechanics of the operation to boost Cameron: “The Cameron team is the most media savvy. Reports of the Newsnight poll were pushed under the doors of Blackpool’s hotel bedrooms. Behind the scenes, Steve Hilton, a genial professional operator in the new Labour mould, charmed journalists, even those from titles that would never endorse the Tories”![6]

Luntz’s focus group had made history. Will his name become as synonymous with focus groups as George Gallup’s became for opinion polling seventy years ago? Despite the dramatic impact of his Carlton Club poll no-one in the British media asked, “Who is Frank Luntz?” or “what is a focus group?”

Unlike opinion polls which test what people think or how they will vote at a given moment, focus groups are used to find out how to sell a product or candidate. The purpose of focus group is not to find out what people want, but to find out how to persuade them that they want what you want to give them. Frank Luntz knows that better than any modern spin-meister.

Although a frequent participant in Newsnight programmes, Luntz has none of the controversial reputation in Britain that he enjous in his native America. In May, 2000, Salon.com’s Dante Chinni noted the role of Luntz in boosting George W. Bush by producing polls showing what seemed to be poorly-prepared or uneasy television appearancers as actual triumphs:

“Frank Luntz… [is] possibly the best example of what we could call the pollster pundit: someone who both purports to scientifically poll the opinions of the public, and then also interpret that data to support his own -- in Luntz's case, conservative -- point of view. This is what allows Luntz to face a room full of journalists and, in all seriousness, proclaming George W. Bush’s jittery, time-delayed appearance on David Letterman -- the one which prompted boos from the audience -- a total success.”[7]

Already, under Clinton, Luntz was mixing polls and partisanship, or at least that is what his peers in the professional organization of American polsters thought. According to Chinni, “In 1997, Luntz was formally reprimanded by the American Association for Public Opinion Research for his work polling on the GOP's 1994 "Contract with America" campaign document.”[8]

The basic question about Frank Luntz’s methods is whether his purpose is study or persuasion. To many observers his approach seems more about learning how to persuade people of a particular line rather than finding out what they think. For instance, “Mr Luntz… uses focus groups to test marketing strategies…” according to the New York Times’s Jennifer S. Lee.[9] But what that means is how to sell the public something which it finds unpalatable, whether mining in nature reserves or war.

In June, 2004, Luntz advised Republican politicians that "No speech about homeland security or Iraq should begin without a reference to 9/11. … If you describe it simply as a 'pre-emptive action,' some Americans will carry deep reservations about the rightness of the cause. Americans are conditioned to think that hitting first is usually wrong. … By far, the better word to use than 'pre-emption' is 'PREVENTION'…."[10]

In April, 2004, Luntz was interviewed by Samantha Bee of the Daily Show about how he justified the vetting of audiences at Town Hall meetings for President Bush, which he apparently suggested was a way of avoiding “chaos”! [11]

No data has been provided on how the Newsnight focus group was chosen but Luntz’s claims that a third of them were die-hard Tories seems improbable given that they could not recognise the former Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, like Ken Clarke a high profile Tory critic of the Iraq War, or “the Prevention” as presumably Luntz would characterise it. Both Clarke and Rifkind had negative sound bites as their play to the focus group while Cameron’s feel-good bromides were offered.

Since at least one member of the vox pop part of the accompanying film on Newsnight was an avowed supporter of Cameron and a member of his campaign staff the neutrality of the sample must be in doubt. But however the members of the focus group came to their conclusions, they had an impact.

Luntz may have known nothing like it, but was it so unprecedented?


[1] The official results counted by the Electoral Reform Society Ltd. were 198,844 valid votes cast: David David 64,398, David Cameron 134,446,

[2] See “Cameron rejects ‘Tory Blair’ tag” BBC News website (9th October, 2005) http://news.bbc.co.uk /1/hi/uk_politics/4323668.stm,

[3] See, for instance, how Serbia’s Vojislav Kostunica was selected to be the anti-Milosevic candidate by US advisers. Michael Dobbs reported, “U.S.-funded consultants played a crucial role behind the scenes in virtually every facet of the anti-Milosevic drive… Regarded by many as Eastern Europe's last great democratic upheaval, Milosevic's overthrow may also go down in history as the first poll-driven, focus group-tested revolution. Behind the seeming spontaneity of the street uprising that forced Milosevic to respect the results of a hotly contested presidential election on Sept. 24 was a carefully researched strategy put together by Serbian democracy activists with the active assistance of Western advisers and pollsters.” See his “U.S. Advice Guided Milosevic Opposition” in The Washington Post (11th December, 2001), A01. Emphasis added;

[4] And as quoted widely in other media, e.g. John Paul Flintoff, “Focus: Can Boy Wonder save the Tories?” in The Sunday Times (8th October, 2005),

[5] See http://www.cameroncampaign.org/downloads/newsletters/newsletter_04.10.05.pdf ,

[6] See Michael Portillo, “Cameron-mania could be an election too soon” in The Sunday Times (9th October, 2005),

[7] See Dante Chinni, “Why should we trust this man? Frank Luntz is king of the pollster pundits, but don't ask him where his numbers come from.” in Salon.com (26th May, 2000) @ http://dir.salon.com/ story/politics/feature/2000/05/26/luntz/ index.xml,

[8] See ibid.,

[9] See “A Call for Softer, Greener Language” in New York Times (2nd March, 2003) http://www.luntzspeak.com/graphics/NewYorkTimes.NewsStory.pdf ,

[10] Quoted by William Frey, “Confessions of a Repentant War Supporter” @ http://www.antiwar. com/orig/frey.php?articleid=8011,

[11] Quoted @ http://www.progressiveu.org/235_frank_luntz_daily_show.

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