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The Left needs to watch its language

Most people don’t spend much time thinking about the radical left – we’re far too marginalised – but if they did, what image would come to mind? I’d suggest something like this: a middle-aged pub bore, who takes himself way too seriously, no sense of humour, prodding the air with his finger as he mumbles about something not terribly relevant, in language you don’t really understand. As he sits in his duffle coat, ranting at anyone who will listen, you do your best to avoid making eye contact. It’ll only encourage him.

I’m exaggerating for dramatic purposes, but there’s no denying my basic point. The radical left has a terrible image problem. It has little ability to communicate in a way that resonates with ‘ordinary’ people. As it has been swept aside by the onward march of the right, this is a problem that has only got worse.

So I want to set out a few ideas for how the left could improve its PR setup. Before I’m drowned in accusations of cockiness, these are just my suggestions. Please, add your own. And yes, I’m sure I’ve violated every single one. But this is how I think that I, and other lefties, can improve.

Start where people are. Guess what! Most people aren’t socialists, and have never – or rarely – been exposed to lefty arguments. All too often, left-wing activists start on the basis that they’re talking to the converted. I think a lot of the problems with the left’s presentation skills spring from this.

Radical ideas, moderate words. Lefties often think that, if you’re pushing really radical policies, the language you use has to be equally radical. If it’s not, it’s almost seen as betraying your left-wing beliefs. But you can promote ideas with moderate language without diluting their radicalism. People who don’t already consciously sign up to your politics (that’s about 85% of the population, by the way) will be far more likely to listen. Tub-thumping, r-r-revolutionary rhetoric will win cheers from keffiyeh-wearing SOAS students. But that’s about it.

Drop the jargon. Seriously, you’re trying to convince people, not write a university seminar paper. Skim-read a left-wing paper (I dare you), and all too often it seems that only someone with at least one postgraduate qualification can really understand what’s been talked about. Other socialists seem to be consciously imitating the style of English translations of early-20th Century Russian revolutionaries. That doesn’t mean you have to be patronising: just accessible to people who are outside an educated, left-wing milieu. The golden rule should always be to use the simplest possible word that accurately puts your point across.

In the early 1990s, John Carey wrote a classic book called The Intellectuals and the Masses. Its basic argument was that middle-class intellectuals were threatened by the rise of mass literacy in the 19th century. The fact that everyone could potentially have access to ideas that were the preserve of the elite was, well, threatening. So to ‘keep the masses out’, they started using all sorts of jargon and complicated words. This remains a big cultural problem in academia: but I think parts of the intellectual left have been infected with it, too.

Raid the language of the right. Why not? They started it, nicking words like ‘progressive’. The cheek. They use words like ‘modernising’ (privatising stuff) and ‘reforming’ (cutting services and sacking people), because it helps paint the left as dinosaurs and the ‘real’ conservatives. So how about we start talking about bringing the railways into the 21st century, for example?

Get a sense of humour. People think that left-wing activists can’t take a joke. This is a shame, because humour is innately subversive, and we’ve got great left-wing comedians like Mark Steel and Jeremy Hardy. It helps engage people, illustrates your political point, and shows you’re not taking yourself too seriously.

Drop the hyperbole. The injustices we’re up against are bad enough. Don’t start comparing our atrocious government to the Egyptian dictatorship or writing about our still young movement against the Government like it’s the storming of the Bastille. People will laugh at you.

Ground your politics with examples that relate to people’s lives. During the general election TV debates, the party leaders were rightly ribbed for their constant ‘real-world’ stories. Like, ‘Take Janet, the supermarket worker in Dartmouth, who’s worried about her tax credit.’ That’s because it was total overkill. But relating your politics to the everyday experiences of the people you’re addressing helps a lot. It shows you understand their problems, and it helps them to connect their issues to the solutions you’re proposing.

Jump on that bandwagon. Ok, that’s pushing it a bit: but use hooks in the news. The right does it all the time. Take the tragic cases of Karen Matthews or Baby P: shamelessly exploited by the right, who argued it opened a window into ‘another Britain’, rather than just being isolated examples of the depravity of a few individuals. I’m not saying we use those sorts of examples, because frankly it is horrible and morally bankrupt. But we should always keep an eye on big news stories, and using them as hooks for our policies.

Embrace the mainstream. Some left-wing activists think that being radical means being contrary and iconoclastic, and waging war against mainstream culture. You get articles slagging off football, or monogamous relationships, or other things that most working-class people hold dear. The stereotype of the left-wing activist with long, dyed hair, lots of piercings and wacky clothes covered in badges is unfair – but (like many stereotypes) has some basis in reality. The problem is a lot of working-class people (that’s our base by the way) will look at lefties and think: these people are completely alien to me.

Get your priorities straight. Look, I marched against the Iraq war about a dozen times. International issues are important, particularly when they are a matter of life and death, or when a government is repressing people ‘on our behalf’. But the problem is the left often emphasises international issues at the total exclusion of things that matter to working-class people on a day-to-day basis: like housing, workers’ rights, low pay, jobs, and so on. We need a far better balance. Maybe do your Gaza stall on the first Saturday of each month, and your living wage stall on the second Saturday. Deal?

Get some non-lefty friends. I’m not saying start going to dinner parties with Tories and treat your political differences like it’s all one big joke. But left-wing activists often live in a bubble, only hanging out with other like-minded lefties. They end up forgetting that most people don’t share their politics, and as a result they don’t have a way of addressing their concerns, or countering their arguments.

Knock on doors. There’s no better way of finding out what ‘ordinary’, non-lefty people think than going canvassing and talking about what’s bothering them.

These are just few of my ideas, and you might think I’ve taken it too far. Or not far enough. But I think that, even if we take a few up, people will at least make eye contact with us in the pub.

8 Comments

  1. Steve Kelly says:

    Excellent – I totally concur, particularly with the point that most people aren’t interested in politics as such but how politics affects their lives. The Labour party have got a golden opportunity here to really hammer home how right wing policies truly affect ordinary people’s lives.

  2. John Smith says:

    Was my post deleted because I mentioned the fact that Marx was a career drunk who didn’t believe his own ranting or because I mentioned the fact that more than 7 million were killed because of his rantings?

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Your previous post was deleted because it was offensive and not on the subject. Some readers may think this is just about close enough to the subject to qualify, rubbish though it is that 7 million were killed because of Marx’s “rantings”.

  3. Mick Hall says:

    Jon

    Good stuff, although not sure about using the language of the right, sadly to many on the left already do this, for example calling folk with little money ‘the poor’ with all the negative connotations of that word, the railways into 20th century is fine, but can you give any other?

  4. Owen Jones says:

    Mick,

    Workers’ rights is a good example, I think. Let’s modernise them / bring them into the 21st century – and arguing against those on the right who want to turn the clock back to the 19th century.

    Owen

  5. Mick Hall says:

    yep good example Owen

  6. dan lambert says:

    The Main and overriding problem of the Left is that all it calls for is longer chains and bigger cages.
    I’ve not once heard any member of the Left, including Mark steel and Jeremy Hardy echo Marx in calling for the “The abolition of the wages system” the communist/socialist “Revolutionary watchword”.
    If all those that have called themselves socialists/communists were just that we would have had the revolution long ago.

  7. Julian Vein says:

    Dan,
    They probably misread The Communist Manifesto. It calls on workers to “lose” their chains, not “loose” them.

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