The Blog

The Language Politicians Use Is Damaging Politics

Politicians must begin to move away from this mould and persuade us to get behind them as people. They need to put the passion and personality back into politics.

With 24 hour news, twitter and every word said by a politician scrutinised, the dominance of spin has left the language used by politicians sterilised. After Tony Blair was elected as leader of the Labour party, his enforcement of the party line and his emphasis on media relations were seen as the peak of the evolution of spin; something with which New Labour is now, rightly or wrongly, completely synonymous. Spin doctors made the Labour party a formidable electoral force, but what have they meant for the UK's politics as a whole?

Ahead of this year's EU Parliament elections I interviewed the Green MEP Jean Lambert; during the interview she told me that she was baffled by the insistent use by mainstream politics of phrases like 'hard working families'. She said that when the government and political parties at large say they support and believe in 'hard working families', it effectively means that they do not support people who are not in families, nor do they support people who can't work. This brand of political language is simply just stock phrases which mean very little and that serve to do no more than alienate people, both from each other and from politics as a whole. The constant churning out of phrases like 'hard work' is not a sincere political statement but rather just a hollow reiteration of rhetoric which aims to offend nobody but in fact sucks all the personality and integrity from political debate.

George Orwell, in his essay 'Politics And The English Language', described the use of ready-made political phrases like 'lay the foundations' and 'achieve a radical transformation' as something which 'anaesthetises a portion of one's brain'. There is a real danger that the constant use in politics of phraseology obsessing with hard work has rendered it meaningless and is dulling our brains to the real implications of political discussion and consequent action. It's not that politicians shouldn't seek to be on message or be media savvy, but there is a difference between effectively engaging with a group of society you want to vote for you and endlessly repeating 'safe' stock phrases that you support hard work and Britain until it becomes nothing more than white noise. Labour tried this with their laboured slogan 'Hardworking Britain Better Off', which was wildly unpopular with the party rank and file on account of being both alienating and vacuous.

When people in politics say that they 'welcome' a development, such as the recent GDP figures, they tend to use an objective tone, acting as if they have a monopoly on the truth and that what they are saying is absolute fact. Whether we agree or not that there are absolute truths in politics, the most troubling aspect of this tone of voice is arguably that politicians very rarely say 'I think'. Just look at Ed Miliband's disastrous repetition that the strikes were 'wrong' in 2011, as though it was an empirical truth. The omnipresent party line has seemingly removed politician's abilities to state their own opinions and persuade the public to their way of thinking, which after all, is pretty much the point of political communication.

One of the many reasons that Tony Benn is regarded as the late great Tony Benn is that when he spoke he spoke with passion and feeling. Other politicians who benefit from breaking this are (depressingly) Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. The response to the way these politicians use language is far more emotional and personal, both in a positive and negative way, but nonetheless they provoke reactions far more than the rest of the trained, bland political class, not in the least because that are happy to say 'I think' and to hold responsibility for their views, which clearly proves more engaging to the general public. When these 'character' politicians talk they invite us to agree or disagree with their perspective. As a result we feel we know them more and can empathise with them as people, in turn allowing us to engage with what they are saying. They are also frankly more interesting to listen to.

This is not to say that boredom and insincerity are the greatest threats of political language; of course saying that we will be flooded with immigrants is dangerous, as is the blunt and patronising grouping of people that Grant Shapps has indulged in. However, if we are not careful and if we don't do something about it, the language of our politics will be reduced to static and will irreparably damage our democracy. There is something about a lot of the language of modern politics that has had the humanity sterilised out of it, leaving us with soundbites that are vacuous and sycophantic. Politicians must begin to move away from this mould and persuade us to get behind them as people. They need to put the passion and personality back into politics.