Wednesday 18 March 2015

The first step towards reinventing political language

Well over two decades ago, I was briefly on the Lib Dem sub-committee which oversaw the party's party political broadcasts.  This was before I had ever sent an email, let alone watched Youtube, so there were only a few opportunities for this kind of thing every year.

I remember I tried to persuade my colleagues that we should experiment with a broadcast featuring a Lib Dem councillor, as if it was a fly on the wall documentary.  We dubbed this broadcast, which was never actually made, 'Shirley Valentine' - quite why, I don't remember.

I believed, and still do, that politicians need to reinvent the language with which they communicate with voters.  It needs to be less about telling and more about showing.  It must be a difficult lesson to learn since, two decades later, they have barely tried.  The megaphone is more subtle, but it is still a megaphone.

But I'm grateful to Jonathan Calder for drawing my attention to a Lib Dem election film which does exactly this, about Watford's mayor and prospective Lib Dem parliamentary candidate Dorothy Thornhill - and it is very simple but surprisingly powerful.

It also takes place in Dorothy's one and only kitchen.

But there is a critical line in there which potentially changes everything: "I'm not a miracle worker."

How often do politicians make that admission?  How many of them are addicted to the politician's besetting sin - the desperate need for constituents to be grateful to them? They find it so hard to wean themselves off the magical view of themselves, stepping forth and flying over any given situation while they sprinkle fairy dust and everyone cheers.

That is a disempowering lie.  Successful politicians spread power.  They don't cling onto it.  They spread gratitude around, rather than hoarding it.

Somehow we need to reinvent political language along the lines laid down by Dororthy Thornhill - "I'm not a miracle worker".  In fact, it seems to me that this is the language of a potential Liberal government - it is a language that could be dismissed as an admission of powerlessness, but is actually precisely the opposite.  It is a statement  of honesty and therefore the basis of everything else.

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