When London radio news is being sponsored by a firm of bailiffs, you know something bad is happening. ‘Helping landlords get what they’re owed’ runs the cheery slogan at the end of the bulletins. As bad as the financial headlines are, this tells a bigger story than anything captured in the headlines — proof that the credit crunch is not an abstraction confined to the financial markets, but a bitter reality, already claiming victims and leaving tens of thousands to wonder if they will be next. All over the country, the borrowed penny is dropping.
It dropped on me about 3.30 a.m. on the day my wife and I exchanged on our first house — the very day, as it happens, that Mervyn King first announced that the winged horsemen of the financial apocalypse would be galloping towards us. I slept for about 20 minutes that night, mulling the consequences. And then something else hit me. If I was thinking this, millions of others would be too. Together, they pack a powerful political punch. And I decided to find out who these people are, and where they live.
I am, you see, a political strategist who has left Westminster, but still loves the odd political ‘fix’. Until last summer I was David Cameron’s campaign director — wired on a daily, hourly drug of rebuttals, focus groups, data and target seats. The arsenal that today’s campaign directors have at their fingertips has been transformed since I worked for John Major ten years ago. Back then, the sophisticated political polling techniques that were commonplace in America had yet to be learned, let alone mastered, here.
To find out who our target voters were, we used what today looks like a blunderbuss — canvassers’ returns, and basic analysis of opinion polls. Now, a new breed of companies has arisen with stunning depth of data.