Mara Naile-Akim - The Ownership of Terms.

Establishing your own political vocabulary, your own set of terms with their special meaning is a vital part of being able to stand on your own two feet in politics. At the same time, it is about destroying, undermining the same vocabulary of your opponents. Orwell wrote about an extreme form of this in 1984: one aim of newspeak was to stop the opponents of the system expressing disapproval by removing from the vocabulary all the words they could have used for this. New words were then introduced, words that ensured people thought in the way the regime wanted. ‘It would have been possible, for example, to say Big Brother is ungood. But this statement, which to an orthodox ear merely conveyed a self-evident absurdity, could not have been sustained by reasoned argument, because the necessary words were not available.’[1] In our reality, we have not created whole new languages, but we do try to make sure that our terminology is widely known and widely accepted, preferably at the expense of everyone else’s.

A term elicits a whole picture in people’s minds, conveys the information of several paragraphs of text, allows to get the message across within the confines of a news headline or a soundbite quote. It allows explanations, put-downs, remarks to be slick, whilst leaving the opposition having to debunk your terminology before they can debunk your actual argument. The adversarial nature of British politics, with politicians pitted against each other in parliament and in the media, with the emphasis all too often on the clever put-down rather than a meaningful discussion, further encourages this. It is the same on the internet, with its equally adversarial setting, as hordes of contributors use very formulaic and cliche-rich language[2] to not only ‘to spray forth the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets’ when attacking the opposition, but also to interact between themselves.

A successful terminology needs to be rooted in people’s day to day lives and easily understandable. Whilst it invariably presents a skewed picture, it is nevertheless a picture associated to what people experience in their community, in their workplace. For Labour, its old language was rooted in working class communities, with labour relations and unions at the forefront. For the Tories, it is still rooted in Thatcherism: the language of individualism, aspiration and glorification of private enterprise. The newly emerging language of the populist right is a mixture brewed on people’s disaffection with both the Tories and Labour, attempting to borrow and redefine terms from both. Because coming up with new terms, eliciting the right (from the speaker’s point of view) associations in people with no interest in politics, is hard, it is often easier and better to either discredit or take over the existing terminology of the other side(s).

How do such ‘appropriations’ happen? One side attempts to re-define a term of the other. This is done by changing its meaning to the one that suits your side, often from positive to negative and vice versa. The best example of this is perhaps the word ‘racism’, which is being turned into ‘an allegation used by minorities to get ahead unfairly’. In David Hare’s play ‘The Absence of War’, about an imaginary Labour leader in the 80’s, one of the characters goes through a set of words they can no longer use — words such as ‘equality’ — due to them eliciting a negative reaction in the papers. That is an example of the way in which previously positive terms can be given a negative meaning which sticks. As everyone knows, there is nothing contradictory between equality and aspiration, indeed the former only helps the latter by giving people  opportunity, but that is the ‘left’ meaning of the word, with the negative ‘tory’ meaning being very different.

Alternatively, one attempts to deny that certain terms have any meaning at all in an attempt to present the opposition as ‘throwing around meaningless words only understandable to them’. In the aftermath of the EU Referendum, considerable effort was used by Leavers to destroy the terms hard and soft Brexit, to say ‘soft Brexit is no Brexit’ or ‘there is just Brexit’. That was ultimately unsuccessful, as both options could be stated very succinctly in terms of actual negotiating positions. In particular, ‘soft Brexit’ turned out to have a nicely short definition via prioritising the full access to the Single Market. To which some people, upping the ante, replied ‘well, what is full access to the Single Market’, switching the questioning to the meaning of a different term. Terms like neoliberalism, far harder to explain, fare much worse, with many people claiming that ‘neoliberalism is just capitalism, and people opposing it are anti-capitalists’. Of course, all this goes both ways, and the Left attacks right-wing terminology just as much: I have personally many times argued that newfangled right-wing terms such as ‘virtue signalling’ are totally devoid of real meaning.

A ‘trashed’, discredited, outdated terminology can be a disaster for a party unless it can quickly replace the discredited terms. Whilst the ‘core groups’ keep using the language in the way it was originally intended, the associations appearing in the minds of the outside listener become totally different, and so, by merely talking amongst themselves in the familiar political language, the core group does their opponents’ work for them. This core group needn’t be necessarily party members and activists: Donald Trump’s use of the liberal media to gain support was possible because much of the latter’s language was re-defined by the populist right to mean what the populist right wanted it to mean.

The problem for Labour in the 80’s was similar. The language that was once its strength — one of unions and working class solidarity— became derided and eventually abandoned by all except the hardcore Socialists. Indeed, even the word Socialist itself, once used proudly by Attlee, became a term of derision. The problem was that no adequate replacement terminology was ever constructed: Labour instead became a party hard economic centrism, ‘borrowing’ much of the language of ‘aspiration, middle class values, tax breaks for the wealth creators, being tough on welfare claimants’ and so on. It is hardly a surprise therefore that they then appealed to swing voters in Middle England: they were talking to them in the language of the Conservatives at the time the real Tory party was in the doldrums. At the same time, Labour’s vocabulary in the realm of identity politics reached ever greater depths and variety (intersectional feminism anybody?), but that was never going to appeal to the majority. The hope presumably was to cement the two into one, ‘liberal’ New Labour political language.

Who knows, had the financial crisis of 2008 not happened, Labour might have been able able to do just that. But happen it did: the living standards of many of Labour’s core support decreased and Gordon Brown was forced to shift ever so slightly to the left; at the same time the Tories successfully blamed the fallout of the crisis on Labour’s spending. The Tories seized on this and, once in power, reclaimed their terminology: Labour could no longer be seen to ape them, were forced to play the game using words and slogans tailored to the needs and aims of their opponents and were left floundering, with nothing but identity politics to cling onto.

What should Labour have done? In my opinion, they borrowed the Tory terminology wholesale, without attempting to redefine it, to subtly change the meaning in the way more palatable to their core support. The disconnect between those terms and what Labour’s core voters stood for was too great, the transition too quick. It was a great temporary fix to win power, but it was never ever a long-term solution. New Labour will go down in history as a party of spin and fudge, and one that maligned and took for granted the very demographic it was originally meant to represent.

Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 started being able to speak in a language that was clear and fresh: for instance talking of kinder and gentler politics. This helped him no end in the first leadership election, but later he lost his way. Viciously attacked from all sides, and now with something to lose, he was not able to establish a new and distinctive terminology for Labour Left that would be adopted widely. Because of this, too often he is having to explain, coming across as incoherent and rambling and lacking those few soundbites that will easily put his point across and then travel across the electorate.

His opponents however were very quickly able to come up with a snappy set of terms for Corbyn and his supporters — words like ‘cult’, ‘dear leader’, ‘hard left’, ‘echo chamber’, ‘bubble’ and many others started being thrown about. Their overall aim was to act on an emotional level; anybody who supports Corbyn is ‘weird, not like everybody else, not like us, not normal, like those foreign nasties in Iran/Palestine/North Korea/Venezuela/USSR’. Because it built on traditional stereotypes about the Left, each word carried a rich palette of associations, ‘packing whole ranges of ideas into a few syllables’ as Orwell put it in 1984. Left-wing people are no strangers to using emotion to make a point, but lacking a concise and universally recognisable terminology to help with doing that, they often end up having to express themselves at greater length. This leads to many people accusing left-wingers of ‘ranting’.

As a case study, let us explore how Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour can improve on their predicament. I am not about to suggest a new terminology: that is a seriously hard task. But as I have said above, taking ownership of some of the existing terms, taking your opponent’s terminology and offering snappy definitions of your own, is much easier. As soon as some crusty Tory mentions the future of our children, or aspiration, or patriotism, the idea is to tersely and snappily re-define that very term, to offer the meaning of it that expresses a core Labour belief and resonates better with the ordinary people. Of course, the appropriate messages have to be first repeated ad nauseum to get these new meanings across.

So let us have some examples.

Patriotism. Labour needs to embrace patriotism and claim to be more patriotic than the Tories. It used to do this originally, however the party shied away from mentioning the word of late. This was the wrong decision, as many positive and worthwhile notions of ‘left-wing patriotism’ do exist, and need to be utilised[3]. The notion of progressive patriotism even today knocks about at the fringes of left-wing thought, but is very much a thing of the fringes. The topic is large enough to deserve its special treatment, but the easiest avenue is to attack the other parties for being unpatriotic, in particular the Tories as they preside over the selling off of the country to foreign, often state-owned, entities. Conversely, it is patriotic to pay your taxes in full, it is patriotic to want to look after the poor and the vulnerable and it is even patriotic to insist on British ownership — particularly so if the owner is the British state — of certain industries and infrastructure. (Perhaps Labour should look at the example set by the SNP of how to promote progressive Patriotism? - Gerry NAFNC)

Aspiration. This centre-piece of the Tory dictionary declares that ‘less government’, less redistribution, less regulation enables (or pushes) people to ‘aspire’. It says that unless people see those at the top rewarded richly, the up-and-coming would not be so keen to improve their lot. However, aspiration can be recast as ‘opportunity to be aspirational’. Aspiration should mean social mobility, provision of training places, access, jobs, ability to break class boundaries and so on. It is not enough to show the rewards at the end: there needs to be a way that enough people can take and get somewhere through hard work alone. Opportunities to become an effective contributor are not a hand-out, but a necessary part of a functioning society. An interesting variation by Owen Jones is ‘collective aspiration’: aspiring to improve the well-being of your community, of your group, as opposed to just your own.

Success. This is quite straightforward: the Tories have re-defined success to mean wealth. Success needs to be re-defined as ‘contribution to society’: an excellent teacher or nurse is therefore ‘successful’. And whilst job creation is very important, there are other ways to contribute that are not nearly so well-remunerated, but equally vital to the functioning of said society.

Political correctness. In recent years, political correctness was ‘redefined’ from its original meaning (‘not hurting people’s feelings for the sake of social cohesion’) into a new one (‘a way to stop a debate used by a pseudo-fascist liberal thought police, looking to stifle conversation if certain words are used or sentiments expressed’). For instance, they say, an otherwise good argument is ignored due to politically correct people objecting to some individual words or statements that they see as racist or misogynist. The good news for the Left is that individuals of a right-wing persuasion ‘shut down debate’ in an identical way. ‘That’s just socialism/communism/Marxism’ or ‘we tried that in the 70’s’ they would say, ignoring an argument that may be (i) of merit and (ii) about something different altogether. This, clearly should be called out, as ‘right-wing political correctness’ — trying to shut down your opponent by saying ‘that is Socialism’ in an identical way to an over-zealous Liberal shutting down debate by saying ‘that’s racist’.

Future of our children. A common tactic of the last Tory government was to talk of austerity being ‘necessary’. After all, we are just looking after our children: the youth might be struggling in poor jobs and disaffected, but little do they know, we are looking after them because we know better. But national debt is only one way the older generation can screw over the younger. A far bigger one is under-investment, into education, into training, into the community. If Britain is to compete on the global market, it needs a highly educated, happy and socially mobile workforce, where the cream can rise to the top unhindered by the lack of opportunity. But the Tories have been responsible for the opposite: running down communities and cutting down on the provision of training, making education (both higher and vocational) more and more expensive and failing to provide enough adequate jobs for the youth. It is that, rather than national debt, that will cripple Britain in the long run, and this is not being pointed out enough.

(Inverse) politics of envy. Politics of envy is an old Tory chestnut, alleging that those who want redistribution are just envious of the rich. But all too often it is applied the other way. As the (by now famous) joke goes, a billionaire, a private sector worker and a public sector worker are sitting at a table having tea. The billionaire takes nine out of ten cookies from the plate and says to the private sector worker ‘watch out, he’s after your cookie’. The real politics of envy is played by the Right, known also as divide and conquer. It is also used in making people envy their neighbours who might be getting some meagre benefit to make ends meet. Unless the ordinary people work together to improve their situations, nothing will ever get better, and inverse politics of envy is just another way of sowing divisions in order to ensure that the people stay as divided as possible.

Class warfare. Both Tories and New Labour once pretended that class no longer exists, using the now infamous phrase ‘we are all middle-class now’. The populist right seized on the opportunity, playing class politics to the full as they presented themselves as the champions of ‘the people’ against ‘the elite’. Nobody would now deny class politics does not exist, and what the government is doing to the workers needs to be called out as class warfare — by those with money and power against those without. The sneering attitude of both the Tories and New Labour to the workers, so well described by Jones in Chavs, needs to be highlighted more in this context.

Job creation. Of late, the Tories have gone on at great length about the numbers of people in employment. What they usually omit to pension is the quality of the jobs on offer, with zero hours, part-time and poorly paid work widespread. There needs to be some differentiation between the notions of ‘a proper job’ and of ‘a casual job’ — with the implication that the job creation that really matters is only that of jobs of the first variety.

The last two entries are a bit more speculative:

Personal responsibility. This favourite of the Right decrees that ultimately every person is responsible for their own fate, regardless of external circumstances. If you cannot find a job, it’s your fault, even if jobs are nowhere to be found in your area. If you become depressed due to lack of opportunities and maybe succumb to substance abuse it’s 100% your fault and not at all the fault of the said lack of opportunities. But (and yes, this is a tricky one to pull off well) the same logic can be applied to businessmen, especially those in charge of large corporations seeking to blame external factors for closures and job losses. ‘No use blaming the economic climate for job losses: ulltimately, a company’s performance should be the personal responsibility of those in charge, and Trump’s multiple bankruptcies (for instance) should be seen in the same way as the failure of a former miner to find decent work.

Dependency. As the Tories are never tired of telling us, having the state improve the condition of the poor and the low-paid is actually a Bad Thing: it will make them dependent on whatever legislation they benefit from. Well, let’s apply the same logic to big business: we cannot give that big tax break, that subsidy, because businesses will become ‘too dependent’ on the government and will never evolve to be more efficient.

[1] Orwell, George. The principles of Newspeak (Appendix to 1984)

[2] Of course, one must not forget imagery, something that the internet made much easier. Images and memes are very much part of the political discourse on the internet at the moment.

[3] Throughout the early years of British Socialism, many of its leading figures strove to reconcile patriotism with internationalism, and their ideas could do with being re-visited.