Learning the lessons from last week #5: You can’t be distinctive with someone else’s vocabulary

A favourite pastime of cynical journalists with space to fill is to take select phrases from the speeches of different party leaders, remove the names of the authors, jumble up the order and then ask the reader to guess which leader said which. Even with the wondrous variety of the English language, it’s no surprise that words and phrases often overlap, even between politicians with radically different views of the world. There is, even so, sometimes a deeper truth in this parlour game for cynics.

It’s a truth that the words of Liberal Democrats in the run up to last Thursday’s elections revealed: far too often the party is not talking about its own beliefs but instead co-opting the phraseology of other parties. “Big Society” tumbles out of Liberal Democrat ministers mouths more often than “community politics”. “Liberal” may be more common, but it’s not that common.

The choice of vocabulary is not all powerful in itself; lovely words still need the right substance to describe. But the right substance without the right words is like the lovingly crafted speech that is never delivered. Nice to know it’s there perhaps but fundamentally a self-defeating approach to politics.

As I touched on briefly in the first post in this series,

It’s not as if Liberal Democrat achievements are few and far between. With three-quarters of the Liberal Democrat manifesto being enacted by the government, there is a huge list of them. But turning that list into a coherent, simple and compelling story of what the party is about has not yet been managed.

Community Politics Today book coverWithout our own voice and our own vocabulary, it’s always going to be near-impossible to make the achievements into a coherent and effective political message. If we simply ape the language of others, it will sound like we are aping their actions too.

We do not need to create the answers to this from scratch, however, for we have a distinctive view of society, individuals and how power should be used in community politics.

Mark Valladares wrote on his blog that,

We’re liberals, not socialists or conservatives. We believe in individual freedom within the context of strong communities. That’s not always easy, but it is what we believe in. Talk about building a better society, talk about giving people the tools to build it, talk about how we will protect those that need protection.

I would add to that list – talk about community politics. It’s a phrase that has almost completely dropped out of use in senior party circles, and it’s a way of seeing the world which is very rarely used to explain Liberal Democrat policies or to set out our approach to winning battles in government. It’s also an answer to the point Jonathan Calder makes about the difference between a list of worthy technocratic improvements and a program for a political party.

It requires an understanding that the party’s members and supporters should be active participants, not passive spectators, a self-confidence in our own view of the world such that adopting the phrases of others becomes an embarrassment, not a necessity, and an attitude of mind that sees local government as the essential colleague in delivering community politics week in, week out.

For more on community politics, its origins and what it stands for, see my collection of community politics reading resources.

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5 Comments

  • When Clegg is using Cameron phraseology, i.e Muscular Liberalism, as his fightback clarion call, what hope have you?

  • @Oranjepan

    I’m not saying anyone has a monopoly on the use of certain words or phrases, it was just the way in which Clegg did it. It appeared more an attempt at appropriation than re-appropriation.

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