Fascinating story on class and politics in Britain

November 10, 2008

Kudos to The Guardian‘s Rafael Behr, he’s written a really thought-provoking story on class tensions and political preferences in British cities.

The story details how politicians and marketers are using data-mining techniques to target particular voter/consumer groups through a large data-base called Mosaic:

Mosaic sorts people into 11 categories, sub-divided into 61 types. Each is defined according to shopping preferences, age range, family structure and values. I am curious to see where I fit in, so Professor [Richard] Webber punches in my postcode. ‘E30: New Urban Colonist – Younger, high-achieving professionals, enjoying a cosmopolitan lifestyle in a gentrified urban environment.’

Professor Webber winces. He didn’t come up with the names, he explains, and would have preferred not to use a metaphor of colonisation. I can see why. It makes me sound like a yuppie conquistador, setting sail for the inner city and decimating the indigenous population with my imported gastro-pub virus. The actual categorisation is more prosaic, and precise. The computer guesses that I shop at Waitrose, where I buy organic vegetables. I am likely to be white and 25-34 years old. I probably read The Observer. New Urban Colonists make up 1.36 per cent of the population.

This is a quintessentially New Labour way of looking at social division: not as a story of competing classes, but as a patchwork of consumer segments. The Mosaic headings are reminiscent of those emblematic voters – ‘Worcester Woman’ and ‘Mondeo Man’ – who were explicitly wooed and won over by Tony Blair in the run-up to the 1997 election.

Since the Obama victory is all-but-guaranteed to spark a growth industry in electoral social-networking tools, I wonder how the new tools will transform the uneasy class alliances that underly British politics today.

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