The Right’s Lost For Words
‘If Tories want people to vote with their hearts as well as their heads, they must take back words such as “social justice”, “welfare”, and “workers”’
Anything familiar about these nine words? They are always associated — powerfully and positively — with the political Left. What about these ones? Austerity, Brussels, Cuts, Hard-nosed, Economy, Privatisation, Sovereignty, Traditional, Tax Cuts, The Rich. They are always associated — powerfully and negatively — with the political Right. The political language associated with conservatism is often technocratic, complicated, seemingly mean-spirited and frequently out of time with the spirit of the age.
The reason why the Left so often succeed politically is because they have appropriated language people relate to, feel a warmth towards and understand. They have owned the language of compassion in the same way Neil Armstrong made sure that the United States “owned” the moon by planting an American flag on its surface in 1969. This ownership has not come by accident but by relentless repetition, in every statement, in every speech, and in every article of left-wing politicians.
During the recent general election, Jeremy Corbyn was initially derided for using the soundbite “For the Many not the Few” in his campaign, which had been successfully used by Tony Blair in 1997. The reality was it was quite a brilliant slogan. In six words, it reflected the current public mood of discontent. It summed up what people thought the Labour Party was all about. It repeated the Left’s central message through the ages and was a huge contrast to the Tories’ “Strong and Stable” which said nothing and explained little.
Why does all this matter? The Left’s understanding of the politics of language has given them huge advantages. When Labour people make contact with voters, they immediately have a head start. While the voters may question or even disagree with Labour policies, at least they think that their hearts are in the right place.
By contrast, when Conservatives engage, the voters are thinking very different things — at best confused about what the party stands for, at worst perceiving Tories as being for austerity and the better-off. Even if those voters do decide to vote for us, it will be through their heads and not their hearts — a reason why so many young people have turned their backs on Conservatism.
One can argue about the injustice of all this — which won’t make much difference — or Conservatives can try and do something about it.
The truth is that words matter, as do political language and narrative. Yet some of those on the Right seem to believe that actions always speak louder than words. So, if the deficit is under control and the economy sorted, it does not matter if the preceding five years of narrative that the public have heard is about uncaring, hard-nosed Tories.
The response to this is simple: actions speak louder with words. Tories will not be able to engage and have an emotional connection with the public unless they constantly use a language that is simple to comprehend, sums up the real truth about what conservatism really means, and resonates with the public. Once the language and narrative are decided, they have to be used again and again until they become embedded both internally and externally, in everything Conservatives do.
But is not just a case of using language and narrative — it has to be about using the right language.
As well as developing our own narrative, Conservatives must retake the language of compassion from the Left. This was one of the reasons why Iain Duncan Smith founded the Centre for Social Justice. Tories must take back words such as “social justice”, “welfare” and “workers” for their own. They need to use these words and ensure there is a Conservative definition for them.
Take “workers” for example: a Workers’ Party is not left-wing, as some on the unthinking Right may think it. A Conservative Workers’ Party is one that supports the living wage (to get people out of the benefits poverty trap), backs lower taxes for lower earners, as the key means of income increase for low-income workers, and invests in apprenticeships and skills to ensure that working people get the skills and apprenticeships they need, so that they can climb the ladder of opportunity to get the jobs they need for their future.
Since 2010 the Conservative government has been doing many of these things, but without a political language or narrative to explain them. Good policies have been introduced, but as a series of clothes-pegs without a washing line. So not enough people know about them. If Tories want people to vote with their hearts as well as their heads, Conservatives need that washing line. The right political language and narrative are as important as good policy.