You’re here in the People’s Republic of Mortimer either because you know me, or you are a Liberal Democrat. (Unless of course you found me by accident, and I would like to extend particular apologies to the person who clicked through on the search term “Italian banker sex position” – did you find it, and how did it go? Or unless you are the person who has been googling me nearly every day for the past week, in which case would the right honourable gentleman please stand up.)
Anyway. If you are in the same friendship group or party as moi, the chances are you have the kind of sure-fire, built-in, congenital bullshit detector that can fell rocket-guided missile systems. “Empowering local communities”, “Time for change”, even the seemingly more substantial “1p on tax for education”, “Save the planet now”. You know the whole business of slogans for the utter moribund toss it is. You know damn well these are artificially foreshortened whimpering little mini-bites that achieve nothing and inform no-one, whether they are conceptual or factual, whichever party is spewing them out. You know that because you read the polls or because you’re one of the uninspired polled, you know it deep down even if you help to write the moribund toss.
We laugh at David Cameron for speaking in catchphrases, and then we subscribe to the same feeble, obsolete methods of communication. This morning someone either-important-or-not calling themselves “Leader in waiting” did it on Lib Dem Voice, and I hope they won’t take it personally (hell, like they’ll be reading anyway) if I quote in a rather damning manner their notion of what constitutes the ideal Liberal Democrat message, because I think they’re so fundamentally wrong it breaks my heart:
Our values: Community, enterprise and freedom
The approach: Politics in your neighbourhood
You can’t argue with “community, enterprise and freedom”, but that doesn’t mean it does the job of persuading people to your way of thinking. You haven’t told them a bloody thing about your way of thinking. Who among your opponents is going to be founding their campaign on “isolation, self-doubt, repression”?
Here are two sad, sad truths. One, a few buzz words strung together mean absolutely bugger all to anyone who isn’t already bought into making them mean something. Two, “4p off the basic rate” does not make an instinctive sense to the world in general, it really doesn’t. I’ve been to the pub, and I know. The reason political language doesn’t reach most people is because it is not really designed to reach most people – it is unwittingly designed to reach the people who can already make sense of those words using their existing knowledge. But to hear press officers, activists and agents talk you would think “the message” is a magic formula – one that we admittedly haven’t quite got right yet seeing as turnout is at an all-time low and nobody can really tell the difference between one party and another, and no-one would be able to say what we stand for even if the chief press officer tied their pet rabbit down under a dangling meat cleaver suspended by a burning rope, but we will get there one day if we just keep plugging away at it!
There’s a branch of science that involves a never-ending search for a simple solution using tools that have never once, never even partially, had the desired effect. That branch of science is alchemy.
Where has it come from, this idea that boiling down the fruits of seventeen working parties and literally thousands of hours of expert thought to a couple of nouns and a linking preposition is the right way to communicate plans for a system of government? Shorter does not mean simpler, or easier, or more comprehensible, or more memorable in the true sense of that word. It means shorter.
We could blame advertising, so I will. They (by “they” I obviously mean the Wizards of Advertising and other Bad People) started the whole business of competing for an attention span for commercial purposes, and when their concepts get tired and stop selling things they lend them to politics. With few exceptions, people in public life seem to accept these tenets without question. Shorter. Simpler. Catchier. More active verbs. Short, simple and catchy with verbs in are the great levellers that will put my gigantic conceptual political brain on the same wavelength as your tiny rude mechanical one. And there are fashions in these things, which makes them all the more treacherous. Right now, a widely-used conceit is “intelligent whatever” – “intelligent design”, “intelligent finance”, even “intelligent living” on a forum the other day. But if little me knows about it, it’s probably over-exposed and on its way out.
Don’t misunderstand, I don’t think for one moment that the writers of political messages are being cynical or patronising in their constructions – and we shouldn’t be too ready to guffaw at the really piss-poor efforts either. On the contrary, it is quite instructive to take them seriously for, oh, at least a minute. Of course they’re going to think “Empowering local communities” is a good turn of phrase if they’ve just sat round a table with five other jolly clever people and chewed over exactly what it means and how best to express it. I’ll tell you why that is – it’s because they, unlike the poor saps who are going to be on the receiving end of this garbage, have gone through a process. They’ve swapped ideas and stories and they’ve spent an entire working day addressing the question that someone asked right at the beginning of the meeting: “So, what’s it really all about? When you get right down to it?”
When you have a plan for government and a vision for the society it is going to create, you are envisaging a process. People are actually very good at understanding processes if they are explained in the right way. You can’t survive as an animal with a consciousness without being able to pick up processes. First A happens, then we’ll do B, as a result there will be C, we must be wary of D but provided X responds in the right way, we will implement Y, therefore Z. What people are not good at is reading all your plans, all your ideas, all your dreams for society into four or five peaky, modish words that a lifetime’s semantic study could not fully unravel. Look at how much ink has been spilt on “I think therefore I am.” I actually do like a lot of Lib Dem slogans – “Let’s make Britain carbon neutral”, “It’s time to leave [superimposed on a map of Iraq. Visual cue. Nice]”. They are simple and functional. So why does my bullshit radar still tremor so?
It’s because the better Lib Dem slogans are a good version of a very, very bad idea. No-one’s saying we should write an essay on why the Lib Dems should be in government and pin it to trees, but actually if someone was saying that, at least it would be a genuinely new idea. We’re limited in how effectively we put policy across because our policies are bigger and better than the methodology we use to promote them.
Of course all I am doing is uselessly agreeing that there is a communications problem, something the whole party has agreed on for twenty years. Well done, Mortimer, no flies on you. And I’ve read a bit more on the recent history of the calls for “narrative” over the past couple of days, but there is surely a further backlog of communications discussion and best practice – perhaps some wiser, sadder soul who is bored or insomniac enough to have read this far could advise me, that I may blog more productively?