One problem, though is that universal free childcare would be a big new state programme. Alison is worried about this, because the British Social Attitudes survey shows that younger people distrust the state and are more individualist. She asks, “is this [lack of access to affordable childcare] a modern problem to which we are offering a big centralised state solution?”*
Perhaps we could learn something from Lego, who in recent years have faced a similar dilemma. In Lego's case, big data analysis and surveys showed that their customers increasingly demanded instant gratification and had shorter attention spans. It seemed like Lego might go the way of social democracy, popular in the mid to late twentieth century, but out of tune with what people want in the twenty first. But after talking to Lego fans in more depths, they found out that the analytics only told part of the story:
"At that moment, it all came together for the LEGO team. Those theories about time compression and instant gratification? They seemed to be off base. Inspired by what an 11-year-old German boy had told them about an old pair of Adidas sneakers, the team realized that children attain social currency among their peers by playing and achieving a high level of mastery at their chosen skill, whatever that skill happens to be. If the skill is valuable, and worthwhile, they will stick with it until they get it right, never mind how long it takes. For kids, it was all about paying your dues and having something tangible to show for it in the end."
More detail here - the whole story is definitely worth a read.
And so they responded by making their products more intricated, more detailed, and going against the conventional wisdom about what customers wanted. And last year, they became the biggest toy company in the world.
This offers a possible solution to the dilemma which Alison is grappling with. Labour doesn't need to choose between dogmatically sticking with outdated ideas which aren't relevant to the modern world or junking our principles. We can be aware of the big trends in society, and also learn from people when they seem to be telling us something different from the surveys and polls. Then we can synthesise this information, and apply our values to develop effective and practical solutions.
In other words, if people are telling us that universal childcare would really help them out, that is probably telling us something important about the limitations of surveys on how people are rugged individualists and hostile to the state. This combination of big data analytics and conversations with people at the grassroots offers the best way of staying relevant and meeting people's needs, whether you're selling toys or trying to bring about social change.
*Alison argues that universal childcare doesn't have to be a big state solution, because it can be delivered in a localised way. Quite apart from the surveys which show how people dislike the "postcode lotteries" that would occur, if people don't like the centralised state, they aren't going to be any keener on big new programmes delivered by local councils or new quangos. Localism is a diversion from the real political challenge here, not a solution to it.