Words matter. Don’t choose them too carefully

Nobody who listened to George Osborne’s Budget speech could have been in any doubt about what he was trying to say. If anyone missed the message about “aspiration” at the first mention, or the second, they would surely have picked it up by the sixteenth.  Yawn! The aim of building an “aspiration nation” and helping “hard working people who want to get on in life” was reinforced days later by David Cameron in his immigration speech, in which he also found three opportunities to remind us that Britain was in a “global race”, a theme he first introduced at last year’s Conservative conference.


Consistency is vital. Almost nobody will have heard either speech, which is why it is a rule of politics that once you are sick of repeating a message people are just about beginning to hear it. But while I welcome the emergence of this theme, which I hope Cameron and Osborne will stick to and develop, I hope it does not herald the emergence of that tiresome political fixation, the search for “magic words” that will instantaneously transform sceptical swing voters into true believers.

From time to time, a party hits on a memorable phrase that encapsulates an argument. “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” is a good example. But when you think about it, such phrases are very rare. Yet there is a tendency among political strategists to become fixated not just with tone or language, which are important, but with the use of particular combinations of words. This is not just confined to the backroom. In her book Talking To A Brick Wall, the Labour pollster Deborah Mattinson records that Gordon Brown “loved slogans and believed them to be imbued with a mystical power capable of persuading the most intransigent voter. No matter how many times he was told that words must be matched by actions if they were to persuade, still he searched tirelessly for the perfect summation of his position.”

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with testing words and messages to make sure they are understood and unlikely to be misinterpreted. There is no point, as my research  found, arguing for a “smaller state” if people are as likely to think you mean “lopping off Cornwall” as less expensive government. Or promising “a future fair for all” when, as Mattinson found for Brown, voters took it to be a proposal for a modernistic theme park. (Baffling concepts like the Post-Bureaucratic Age would sometimes escape from CCHQ into the wild despite this process, but the principle still holds).

But I was worried when, during my time as Conservative Deputy Chairman, the American pollster Frank Luntz, who specialises in political phrasemaking, was invited by George Osborne to speak at an awayday for Tory MPs. My concern was that trying to craft precisely the right form of words seems an easy answer to – but is in reality a distraction from – the difficult business of winning the voters’ confidence.

There are two problems with the search for magic words – or the abracadabra theory of political communication. The first is that the listener, the voter, does not separate the words from whoever it is that is saying them. Everything a politician or party says is heard in the context of what the audience already thinks of them. Even if a phrase or argument works in the abstract, it can be unbelievable or at least ineffective when delivered by someone who cannot, in the ears of the listener, sound plausible while saying it. The Conservatives might criticise Labour’s record on the NHS, and Labour might complain about the rising national debt, and both might have good points to make – but for either to be taken seriously on those respective subjects needs more application than simply arranging their syllables in the right order.

I have come across a memo Mr Luntz prepared for the Republican National Committee seven months before last November’s election which inadvertently illustrates this point. In it he quite rightly tells the party that swing voters “will leave you if your rhetoric is too personal against the president or too ideological in tone”. He also seems to be on to something when he says voters are so fed up they will “punish any candidate or party who is promising more of the same. If you want to cut through and cultivate a winning electorate, dare to be different”. His solution, though, is to list sixty phrases he says are currently used by prominent Republicans – covering the economy, the deficit, tax, “class warfare”(!), healthcare, the president and the big picture – and offer an “improved” form of words for each one. The theory seems to be that, for voters, using phrase X rather than phrase Y – saying “restore economic freedom” instead of “restore free enterprise”, or “we need real solutions and real growth to create real jobs” rather than “we want to see a bold focus on growth in the private sector” – amounts to being different. But it doesn’t.

The Tories, similarly, could waste their research budget asking whether voters preferred to hear that the party “stands up for hard working families” or “people who want to get on” or is “on the side of people like you”. The answer, I suggest, would be that any of those things would be fine if you did enough to make me believe it was true.

The second problem with magic words was put to me recently by Tony Abbott, who is well on his way to becoming Prime Minister of Australia. He was resisting advice to use preordained forms of words in his speeches and interviews because to do so would feel unnatural and inhibiting; it would impede rather than enhance his ability to communicate. Reading the Luntz memo, one can see his point. His sixty “improved” phrases add up to 1,045 words (more than are in this article): a script for candidates to learn in which every carefully calibrated word supposedly counts. It is hard to think of a surer way to make a politician seem insincere and inauthentic.

That is the test. Politicians tread a fine line between delivering a coherent message and sounding as though they have swallowed their brief. It will be worth listening carefully to Cameron and Osborne in the coming weeks and months to see whether a newfound consistency is giving way to a belief in linguistic alchemy.  I hope not.

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