We need to change the way we talk
I met a man on the doorstep a year ago. He had a decent job in the railway industry. But with the cost of living rising, he was working seven days a work to keep his family afloat. He was angry that City bankers were paid millions after messing up the economy. Politicians, of every party, had just handed them more cash.
We talked for half an hour. He once believed in Labour. But he felt let down by a party that that didn’t challenge the people he thought had real power. Labour was supposed to stand up for ordinary people. But now, no politicians had any answers. I had nothing to say which offered hope.
Two days before the London Mayor election another Labour activist had a shorter conversation with the same man. Was he voting Labour in the election, my friend asked? No. ‘Against’. The ‘A’ written on the canvass sheet didn’t capture anything meaningful about our encounter.
These are the worst of times. Politics doesn’t give hope. Ed Miliband was right to say the real story of the local elections wasn’t Labour’s victory. It was the fact that so few thought politics made enough of a difference to vote.
Jon Cruddas, Labour’s new policy chief, reminds us that Labour politics needs to be about telling stories that grip and excite. Those stories start with experience of the struggles of everyday life. Despair becomes hope with organization, ideas and passion. It needs a compelling sense of who we are and where we’re going. It’s about common purpose and a movement we feel part of.
But all that needs us to find a very different kind of political language. We need to change the way we talk. I’m going to be exploring how our conversations might be different in a series of Shifting Grounds posts. Writing about power in the second article, and time in the third, I’ll argue that the problem is that politicians don’t talk about things in a way that connects to how things really happen.
Political language describes political action. Democratic politicians persuade with convincing accounts of what they do. But they also involve by talking about actions we can be part of. When it was founded, the NHS was not a policy initiative with beneficial outcomes.
At its best it was the combined work of politicians and people, a movement that reflected a post-war national mood about compassion, care, and people looking after each other. It was supposed to change the way people did things. You knew if it did or didn’t, because you could feel the difference. You were part of it.
Now though, our politics is dominated by abstract nouns that spin freely from the world of real human action. Peppered with words like ‘delivery’, ‘growth’, ‘fairness’, ‘inclusion’, ‘progressive’, politicians’ language stops action from being judged against our ordinary experience of the world. These words are not meaningless. But their content is defined in the closed world of Whitehall and Westminster. They’re tested by statistics not ordinary experience, against criteria defined by the very people we’re supposed to be holding to account. Hope can’t be built on abstract words that don’t connect to real life.
Abstract language is a sign of an evasive political culture, symptom of a political world that finds commitment difficult and any kind of talk about people doing real things impossible. For all their jah-boo shouting politicians find it difficult to disagree about what to do.
They find it even harder to talk with real passion. That’s hardly surprising when tiny differences of inflection are taken as major political antagonisms. And too many politicians have grown up as policy wonks, and not learnt their politics from the struggles of real life.
To give hope, politics must have energy, involve people in the argument and end up telling a coherent story about action. Politics should be about means not just ends. It’s about the movement, not just the outcome. In the great moments in Labour’s past, hope came from a story people could be part of.
Maybe now, we are starting to get a bit of that back. These are the worst of times. But things might just be getting better.
Community organizing, and local campaigns on things like the living wage and legal loan sharks are helping Labour become a movement people feel part of all year round. We’ve learnt from our new policy chief, Jon Cruddas, how to talk with pride about place and country, recognizing that being radical doesn’t mean disowning where you’re from. We realize that technical fixes commanded by the state don’t have all the answers.
Imagine what my doorstep conversation in Greenwich might have been like. Imagine if I could have told a story about the country Labour wants England to be – a people who make things, are rewarded for their work, whose lives aren’t dominated by bankers or bossy bureaucrats, but who live together well.
Imagine if I could illustrate the story with examples of things we’d do if we were elected to government, putting passion into talk about policy. Regional banks to finance local business, or new vocational institutions for example. Our manifesto would be a programme to create collective institutions people really feel part of.
But imagine if I could say you didn’t need to wait for a Labour government to see change. Labour here was organizing people for get cheaper electricity prices, fighting successfully for the Living Wage in local supermarkets, brokering relationships between business and workers. I wouldn’t have been defending Labour’s record but inviting a potential supporter to get involved.
I’d have been speaking a very different kind of language.
I hope we can have that conversation soon.