It's the way they tell 'em: Political language today means nothing to voters

15 Dec 2012

There can be little doubt that we live in an age of cynicism. The miserable turnout in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in November and the lack of information about them; Labour siding with backbench Tories over the EU budget; the Chancellor this week setting a political trap for the Opposition by playing politics with the very poorest in our society; and broken Coalition promises over tuition fees and the NHS, are just a selection of the avoidable actions politicians have taken which have contributed to the disaffected atmosphere in the UK at the end of 2012.


However, more so even than their actions, I fear that the language policymakers commonly use contributes to this disillusionment, a national condition that can potentially be very dangerous. Speak with people about politics and you won’t have to travel far to hear about a disregard for all of the main parties, a malaise that is not unreasonable, but based around ‘why don’t they just tell it like it is’.

Constantly fearing the next election and the latest poll, our leaders cannot resist using meaningless phrases like ‘hardworking families’, ‘alarm clock Britain’, ‘the squeezed middle,’ and my personal pet hates, ‘progressive’ and ‘fairness’ – who ever labelled themselves as opposed to these notions? Can somebody please tell me when a party leader campaigned on a manifesto for unfairness and anti-families?

There is philosophical backing for the argument that some things said by public figures are meaningless. Levi-Strauss and Lacan spoke about ‘floating’ or ‘empty signifiers’, where a word or phrase is commonly used which means different things to different people, and has so many different possible meanings and interpretations that it doesn’t really mean anything at all. The word ‘progressive’, for example, is used by liberals, radicals and even conservatives to justify any policy direction, and this is then used to criticise those who oppose them as somehow backward or seeking to go against the tide of history. I once overheard two politicians debating a healthcare policy from opposing parties and different sides of the fence, both claiming the other was not seeing the ‘progressive’ argument. Surely everyone thinks they themselves are progressive? You don’t have to understand complex philosophical theories (I certainly don’t) to be fully aware that when the minister or MP on the evening news is saying a lot, he or she may not be actually saying anything meaningful. The voter knows when he or she is being duped.

Of course, communicating an ideology or policy to millions of different people from different backgrounds and with different interests and priorities is never going to be easy. Clever and succinct phrases are sometimes necessary to boil down what a politician thinks into a small morsel of thought which can be chewed over by the voter, who has a job to go to and a home to run. However, political jargon that means nothing is increasingly leaving a nasty taste, and is being spat out by people who’ve heard it all before. If common political parlance was more honest about the complexities of areas like the welfare system and the UK workforce – admitting that they cannot be reduced to either/or opposites, and that everyone owns an alarm clock – maybe people would be more willing to give a second listen to the politicians who use and abuse it.

This is why the Democracy 2015 movement thought up by The Independentnewspaper is so exciting. There have been plenty of movements which have diagnosed the problems with apathy in Western politics today – for example the Occupy movement against financial elites in our society, and the Plain English campaign challenging councils and companies – however few have offered potential (and inexpensive) purely political solutions to them which can be adopted swiftly, and hopefully change the nature of debate. One of the key ideas of Democracy 2015 is to field candidates at the next election who promise only to serve one term if they are elected. This would mean that they would not be afraid to ‘tell it like it is’, and I would argue not be afraid to say what they really want to do with budgets and taxes, without fear of alienating voters who could cost them their seat next time around. There are potential flaws to this idea, and initial obstacles and public cynicism to overcome, however the idea deserves to be debated and considered.

The UK’s political discourse desperately needs a movement seeking to refresh our democracy which starts by abandoning politico speak. It needs a movement which refuses to draw binary opposites when this is clearly not the case (for example ‘skivers’ versus ‘shirkers’), and one which realises that the dangers of not being seen to say anything of substance to a sophisticated electorate far outweigh the dangers of losing the next election. Only then can we hope to ‘progress’ to an age of debate instead of an age of weary cynicism.

By Luke Jones

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