The left can be too clever for its own good. We need to translate think tank speak into plain English

There is no point being clever in politics if you can’t communicate your ideas


Left-wing people sometimes think that they are cleverer than their right-wing counterparts. Apparently there has even been recent evidence to justify this belief. I would suggest that the left should be highly suspicious of such claims. This is principally because politics is just as much about judgment and instinct as it is about rationality and intelligence, and very clever people don’t always have the best judgment. Moreover, being likeable is also a very important characteristic in politics – as in life – and being an arrogant smart-arse is an expert way to ensure that you are generally not liked.

This issue has come to the fore recently following a letter to the Guardian in which members of the ‘progressive community’ urge the Labour Party to be bolder and offer ‘transformative change’. The letter suggests five principles that should inform this change.

I must say that I (a left-winger myself) agree with almost every word of the letter and I have no problem with theorising about principles in politics. Indeed, this is a large part of what politics is: disagreement about fundamental principles, or at least about the order in which you prioritise them. And you need to know what your principles are before you can devise policies to deliver on them. When I think about why I disagree with so much about Thatcher’s time in office, it isn’t because she was combative or uncompromising; these traits are often necessary and to be admired. It is because her world-view in which individual freedom is the singular or supreme moral and political value is wrong in principle and utopian in practice.

That said, there is much in the letter which lends itself to ridicule. Its authors seem far too happy to speak in jargon and use buzz-words that few people will understand. The most unfortunate instance of this being when they assert that by adopting their principles ‘Labour can help to fundamentally disrupt power relations and reframe the debate to make a good society both feasible and desirable.’ This is the talk of people who don’t think others outside their club are listening, or don’t care whether they understand if they are.

This tendency is common among left-wingers and it is closely related to our belief in our own forward-thinkingness. Allegedly clever people understand complex ideas and technical language, both of which can be difficult to translate into clear and straightforward terms for the public. This tendency is also a result of the wholesale victory of Thatcherism. Because the neoliberal principles she espoused have become so much part of the established status quo, they appear as common sense while any intellectual challenge to them looks like highfalutin gobbledegook.

The right use the common sense appeal of their principles to great effect. Think of the ‘you’ve earned; you’ve saved it’ refrain from the recent budget. Think of the ‘the economy is like a household budget’ analogy or the ‘they’ve maxed out the credit card’ argument which led the Tories to comprehensively win the economic argument in the early part of the parliament. These are effective because they don’t require explanation. People immediately get it in a way that they don’t get what it means to ‘disrupt power relations and reframe that debate’. The left needs to learn how to boil down our ideas into a coherent and compelling story. Because there is no point being clever in politics if you can’t communicate your ideas to the public and stop the other side from winning.     

With all that in mind, here is my attempt to translate the five principles in the letter to the Guardian from thinktank speak into plain English. This is not an attempt to devise policies, just to clarify the principles. Hopefully others will do the same before they make interventions into the public debate.

1. “Accountability of all powerful institutions, whether the state or market, to all stakeholders” = If something has a big say over fundamental aspects of your life, you should have a say in how it’s run.

2. “Devolution of state institutions, by giving away power and resources to our nations, regions, cities, localities and, where possible, directly to people” = The closer you are to a problem, the more likely you are to care about it and have the knowledge to fix it. You should have the power and resources to do so.

3. “Prevention of the causes our social, environmental, physical and mental health problems, which requires a holistic and long-term approach to governance” = Prevention is better than cure. We should think about the big problems we might face in the future, and work to address them before they arise.

4. “Co-production of public services by workers, users and citizens, to make them more responsive and efficient” = Users and workers have a unique and important insight into how services work and what might improve them. We should use these insights to everyone’s benefit.

5. “Empowerment of everybody, so that they are equipped with the resources (time, money, support) to enable them to play a full role as active citizens” = We want to help everyone to be the best that they can be. 

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Read Next

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Queen Elizabeth II with members of the Order of Merit  

Either the Queen thinks that only one in 24 Britons are women, or her Order of Merit is appallingly backward

Janet Street-Porter
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...