"A day like today is not a day for soundbites", so said Prime Minister Tony Blair before deploying one to herald the Good Friday Agreement. The reality is that soundbites and politics go hand in hand, and to win in May parties will have to master this linguist art in order to succeed.
There is a misconception that soundbites are a perversion of politics; in reality they are an inevitable part of campaigning. To succeed, a party must control the narrative through control of the language. A campaign cannot succeed without a strapline. These help frame an argument and act as a gateway to a wider policy debate - Labour's "tough on crime, tough on the cause of crime" allowed the party to show that it would challenge the Conservatives on its robustness to deal with offenders, whilst recognising the wider social determinants of crime. Although a short phrase, this opened up the narrative into a wider space. Far from being shallow and throwaway, soundbites can unlock wider, more in-depth analysis of a party's policies.
The second misconception is that soundbites were invented by Tony Blair's New Labour in 1997. In fact, the phrase, first used in a political sense in 1980s' America, describes a more natural and long-standing branch of politics. Sloganising has been around for as long as politics. The art of political persuasion includes a well crafted argument, deployed with influential, memorable and at times emotional language. Churchill, Reagan and Blair were all masters at this.
So, for a party that is well known for its accomplishments in this art, how is Labour doing? The Party has indeed a strong record in this field; Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology" helped define a particular period in 1960's Britain and is remembered today. Tony Blair mastered the art so well that people assumed that it trumped the policy behind them; that spin became the all encompassing raison d'être of New Labour.
Today, the Conservatives control the language. The party deploys the "long term economic plan" soundbite with customary rigour. Repetition is important as it helps to get a message lodged in the public's consciousness. Politically, it works as it presents positivity and acts as a wider gateway into the party's economic policies, currently its key electoral strength.
As a device to attack opponents, Cameron's Conservatives are also effectively deploying the soundbite. At Wednesday's Prime Minister's Question Time, Cameron accused Ed Miliband of saying he would "weaponise the NHS;" namely use it as a political football to succeed in May. Whether it was said by Miliband or not, the Conservatives have used this as a further line of attack; they are again controlling the language.
Labour is playing catch-up. The party has had success, most notably with the "cost of living crisis" soundbite. However, the best soundbites convey a positive message that can be associated with a party making them; in essence Labour wants this to stick to the Conservatives, rather than itself. Labour needs positive messaging around key soundbites. Conservatives will repeat ad nauseum the "long term economic plan" mantra. It's clear that Labour needs its equivalent if it is to succeed in May.
Elections are a battle of ideas, but also a battle over language. In an election where Twitter will play a greater role than ever before, short sharp messaging will have to be crafted, honed and deployed. To succeed, Labour needs to re-learn the art of the soundbite. Or , to put it another way, "weaponise" the language.