Language is hugely important. Politicians know this, it is why spin doctors are kept in the job. But the earthquake election of Trump in America and the devastating loss for Labour in Britain have shown a dramatic change in the role of language in politics. It is no longer enough to know your stuff and to speak well before an audience to get the top job. Political messaging needs to be inclusive and appeal to a broad base in order to win.
The right is extremely effective with its messaging. If you listen to any speech by a major, politically successful conservative in the last five years, it is stuffed to the brim with grand, emotive and dramatic language. Abstract language that not only conveys urgency and a call to action (the action of voting for them to solve these urgent problems) but connects it with a dimension that lies behind the policy. This dimension consists of values which can be accessed by both left and right.
Let’s look at some common values of the right: patriotism, strength and ambition. These are deeply emotive and appeal to large portions of the electorate, especially working-class voters. If you look at values-based polling, those who identify as working class are more patriotic and admire strength and defence of the nation. Left-leaning parties and policies are historically weaker in this area: they tend to be internationalist, less explicit in their patriotism and more in favour of immigration and overseas development aid.
This has allowed conservatives, who are by no means economically aligned with working class voters, to transcend the historical income indicators of party support and appeal to working class voters’ values which are not articulated by the left. To examine this, let’s look at Labour’s performance of the 2019 general election. There were clearly two significant factors that delivered their worst election performance since the second world war: Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and their policy on Brexit. We will omit both from our analysis, since I will simply examine the role of Labour’s messaging.
Watching the ITV election debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, Corbyn’s body of language connotes compassion and community. Words like ‘fairness’, ‘caring for all’, ‘society’, etc are used consistently. Boris’ language is filled with emotive abstract adjectives and plosives. ‘Strong economy’, ‘believe in business’, ‘unleash potential’, ‘fantastic deal’. He also describes Britain as a ‘fantastic country’ more than once.
What can we learn from this? Well first of all, conservative political figures are far more willing to overtly display their patriotic credentials than left wing figures. I can remember only a single time that Jeremy Corbyn said that he was patriotic in his entire five years of leadership. He relies far more on commenting on the state of the country via the word ‘society’ instead of ‘country’ or even the word ‘Britain’- compared to Boris Johnson.
Whether you are patriotic or not, or whether you are proud of Britain or ashamed of it, this matters from the perspective of political messaging because so many working-class Labour voters are patriotic. This is exploited by the Conservatives by instantly creating a values-based connection with Labour voters where their party is not, giving them the upper hand.
In addition, the language used by Johnson in the debate appeals to a much larger proportion of the electorate than Corbyn’s. Of course, Labour’s role has always been to protect and provide for those who have less in society. That is the way it should be. But the only way to make this goal a reality is to win power by appealing to those outside of this focus. When so many of Jeremy Corbyn’s speeches focus on ‘the poorest in our society’, he is speaking only to such people – a category which does not make up the majority of voters.
In an ideal society, we would indeed vote on the basis of the vulnerable who need the most support from government. However, most voters want to hear about how their lives will be improved by government. This doesn’t make them inherently selfish people, but the welfare of themselves and their families is the priority. So, to win the support of the majority, Labour has to show them how their policies would help them, not only the very poorest.
That is why Boris’ emotive and encapsulating language works far better in appealing to the average voter: statistically they won’t be receptive to policies designed to support the poorest, but they will be attracted to a ‘strong economy’ and ‘fantastic country’- because these are the ideals that voters aspire to and feel included in.
So how does this affect Labour policy? Do we now begin to copy conservative policy to win over voters? Absolutely not. This is about messaging, not policy. Polling has consistently showed that Labour’s economic policies are popular. Raising the minimum wage, investing in infrastructure, and even the four-day working week are becoming increasingly mainstream positions. We simply need to change the way we sell them and convince voters that they will be beneficial to them.
Take the issue of foreign aid. A policy classically resisted by the right, but today, Labour voters are increasingly set against foreign aid spending. I am not going explore or explain the reasons behind this, as that is a whole different story. But how could the left, or indeed anybody, frame a policy of increasing foreign aid – or sending any foreign aid at all – to people of this opinion?
The key is not to try and change their attitude toward foreign aid, as Robb Willer, an analytics specialist interesting in political polarisation, argues. His experiments found that people of opposing political philosophies could persuade each other more effectively by reframing their political arguments to appeal to values, not attitudes. It’s no good explaining the moral or even economic merits of foreign aid to someone who has already decided there aren’t any. What is far more effective is discovering how they might support foreign aid if it aligned with their values.
So, if you are talking to a patriotic but left-leaning ex-Labour voter, appeal to their patriotic values. Sell the political and soft-power influence that foreign aid could give us on the world stage, and sell the benefits this has for our country. Frame it as something that will give us power and strength in the world, rather than something that makes us weak. This reframes the whole issue from one that takes away from our country to one that gives. This is how to change somebody’s mind.
Or for another example, take the concept of universal basic income (UBI). This is lambasted by the right for being ultra-expensive and low value for money. On the whole, working-class left-leaning voters agree because they tend to see UBI as a potential drain on the economy. A strategy for turning this around would be to present it based on its cost-saving potential & bureaucracy cutting, utilising their fiscal conservatism and frugality, rather than trying to change their attitude towards the policy itself.
You may not like this messaging. You may regard it as spin, or even a lie if it goes against your reasons for supporting a policy. That may be your view. But at the end of the day, do we want voters to see our point of view and lose election after election? Or do we want them to see our point of view based on their own values and vote for us in elections as a result?
This is reframing: a whole new way of political messaging. And I believe it is the only way that the left can win back its base.